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.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Down the hole

By now, everyone has certainly heard that Donald Trump allegedly referred to a variety of Third-World countries, and the entire continent of Africa, as "shithole countries."

I append the word "allegedly" to this statement not because there's any particular doubt that this is how he looks at the world.  I'm just trying to be as even-handed as possible, given that Senators Dick Durbin and Lindsay Graham of South Carolina said yes, Trump said that, while Senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia said no, he didn't.  Trump, of course, denies it categorically, but given that Trump could say something on-air in front of millions of viewers, and five minutes later state with a straight face that he never said it, and his diehard supporters would believe him both times, I'm not inclined to put him either in the "yes" or "no" column.

What I want to address here, though, is a response that I saw posted on social media shortly after the whole incident hit the media.  The initial post I saw showed photographs of slums in Nigeria and Haiti -- two of the particular "shitholes" Trump referred to -- with a text basically saying, "See, he was right."

Of course, the problem here is that if you're selective, you can do that with anywhere.  For example [all images in this post courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons with the exception of the last two, which were taken by me], take a look at the following:

Figure 1: The United States of America 

Or this one:

Figure 2: Also The United States of America 

Or this one:

Figure 3: Yup, This Is The United States Too

And before you get your dander up, I'm not using these to prove that the USA is a horrible place, only that if you cherry pick your data points, you can prove damn near anything.  (If you're curious, the first photo is from Detroit, the second from Camden, New Jersey, and the third from Rand, West Virginia.)

What really torqued me about the social media post, however, was one of the responses to it.  "Far as I've seen, it hasn't been proven that [Trump] actually said that," the comment went.  "But if he did, he's right."

It blows me away how quick people are to use some idiotic internet meme as incontrovertible support of what they already believed.  It's like taking confirmation bias and raising it to an art form.

But really, think about what that person is saying.  That the continent of Africa -- which is the size of the continental United States, China, India, and Europe combined -- can be lumped together under one derogatory epithet and summarily dismissed.  A continent that contains places like this:

Pretoria, South Africa

And this:

Point Lenana, Mount Kenya, Kenya

And this:

The Cape of Good Hope

And this:

Waterfalls in Angola

And has faces like this:

Woman from Gambia

Yes, I know there's terrible poverty and corruption in Africa.  The thing is, there's terrible poverty and corruption everywhere.  By looking at the United States as some kind of pinnacle -- and by claiming that what Trump and his cronies are doing is "making America great again" (merciful heavens, I am sick unto death of that phrase) -- you are ignoring both the beauty in other parts of the world and the problems we have right here in our own back yard.

So for cryin' in the sink, before you throw your opinion in with a guy who is an unashamed racist (yes, I said the word), try breaking out of your own comfortable little bubble of smug certainty and travel to some of these countries that Trump and his supporters have dismissed with a single word.  You see, I have.  I've been in places like Belize and Ecuador and Trinidad and Malaysia.  Yes, I saw poverty, and I saw some people in terrible living conditions.  But I also saw this:

Pacha Quindi, Ecuador

And this:

Fraser's Hill, Malaysia

So my advice: stop falling for comforting overgeneralizations.  Get up off your ass and travel to some of the "shithole countries," talk to the people who live there, and realize that the rest of the world is just as varied -- both in good and bad ways -- as the United States.  Listen to Mark Twain, who said, "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.  Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime."

After that come back and we'll talk.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Pod people

There are some days that I feel like I should just give up and let natural selection take its course.

The most recent occurrences that have resulted in my wanting to step back and let humanity turn into one big Darwin Award revolve around two completely separate situations in which people have decided that it's a smart idea to voluntarily ingest detergent.

In the first, we have the latest idiotic thing that teenagers are daring each other to do, which is to swallow laundry detergent pods.  The so-called "Tide Pod Challenge" -- which was checked out by Snopes, and is actually a real thing -- is further evidence that all you have to do is add the word "challenge" to something, and people will be lining up to do it, often having their friends filming them at the time.

This has led to a number of incredulous public figures stepping forward and saying that no, you shouldn't eat laundry detergent, even if your bro dares you to.

"I can’t even believe I have to say this right now," said Diane Macedo, of Good Morning America.

No, Diane, I can't either.  But evidently we do.

Macedo added, "They are brightly colored and they’re very nicely wrapped, but these Tide pods are not candy or pizza toppings or breakfast cereal—they are not edible."

New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski concurs.  "What the heck is going on, people?" Gronkowski said.  "Use Tide Pods for washing.  Not eating.  Do not eat....  I’ve partnered with @Tide to make sure you know, Tide Pods are for doing laundry.  Nothing else!"

[image courtesy of photographer Mike Mozart and the Wikimedia Commons]

I'm always hesitant to jump on the middle-aged curmudgeon "Kids These Days" bandwagon, but seriously; I do not recall during my childhood that anyone had to make a special point to me not to drink Windex or eat my dad's shoe polish.  And although I did many dubiously intelligent things after hearing the magic three words -- "I dare you" -- I can say with some pride that snorting Comet tub and tile cleaner was not amongst them.

On the other hand, an article that a loyal reader of Skeptophilia brought to my attention a couple of days ago indicates that neither laundry supply consumption nor being a complete fucking moron is territory occupied solely by teenagers.  CBC News British Columbia featured a story last week about a Canadian couple who are facing dozens of charges in court surrounding their sale of a "tonic" containing sodium chlorite -- better known as laundry bleach -- to cure everything from AIDS to autism.

Stanley and Sara Nowak are accused of breaching the rules of the Food and Drug Act by selling their cure-all, along with the claim that it can "eliminate pathogens."  Which, strictly speaking, is true.  Sodium chlorite is pretty good at killing germs.  The difficulty, of course, is that it will also kill you, but your corpse will be delightfully germ-free.

It's the usual problem with people claiming that some random compound will destroy viruses, bacteria, cancer cells, or whatever, in vitro.  That doesn't tell you a damn thing about whether it will (1) work in vivo, or (2) be safe to consume.  After all, you can kill cancer cells in vitro by pissing in the petri dish.  But that doesn't mean that it's a good idea to ingest urine.

Oh, wait, there are people who do that, too.

The Nowaks are completely unrepentant about selling gullible sick people laundry bleach.  "It has an effect on you," Nowak said in an interview.  "I can't see how they can stop this from going in the same direction it's been going for the past ten years... it's working."

Well, yeah, if by "working" you mean "stupid people are buying it."  As far as curing anyone of their illness, however, not so much.  And given that "death" certainly is "having an effect," I guess that's not an outright lie, either.

So there you have it.  And in case I haven't made this clear enough: don't eat your damn laundry products.  That is not what the adage "a clean mind in a clean body" means.  Although if you have to wait for your favorite football player to point this out, maybe you're the person Darwin was thinking about when he came up with the idea of "low evolutionary fitness."
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Saturday, January 13, 2018

Clothes make the monster

In new developments in cryptozoology, today we consider: when Bigfoot wears clothes.

The reason this comes up is because of an article by the ever-entertaining Nick Redfern over at Mysterious Universe, which has the title "Further Accounts of Clothed Monsters."  My first reaction was, "Further?  I didn't know that was a thing in the first place."

But it turns out that this isn't the first time Redfern has considered the possibility, and he references an article he wrote a year and a half ago called "When Bigfoot Gets Stylish," which begins thusly:
Without doubt, one of the most bizarre aspects of the Bigfoot phenomenon is that relative to nothing less than clothed Bigfoot!  It’s one thing to encounter such a creature.  It’s quite another, however, to see it fashionably attired in pants and shirts...  Cryptozoologist Loren Coleman says: “In the 1960s and 1970s, reports from the American West would occasionally surface of hairy bipedal Bigfoot being seen with tattered plaid shirts and ragged shorts on their bodies.  In some research, there were intriguing attempts to relate these to files of paranormal encounters with sightings of upright entities said to be wearing ‘checkered shirts.’  (Within parapsychology, there is a subfield of study regarding ‘checkered shirted ghosts.’)  Investigators generally did not know what to make of these Sasquatch wearing plaid shirts, but dutifully catalogued and filed them away, nevertheless.”
I have three questions about this:
  1. Where does Bigfoot get his clothes?  I mean, I can accept seeing Bigfoots wearing shirts and pants, but you very rarely ever see them in the clothing department at Macy's.  Maybe they order them online or something.
  2. There's a "subfield" of paranormal studies specializing in ghosts in checkered shirts?  That seems like kind of a narrow field of study, as if a psychologist decided only to use test subjects who were wearing argyle socks.  You'd think it'd limit your access to data pretty considerably.
  3. So Bigfoots like plaid, eh?  No pinstripes or paisley or hoodies or NFL jerseys or anything?  Someone really needs to work with them on their fashion sense.  Not that I have anything against plaid (or, honestly, have that much room to criticize), but if that's all you wear it becomes a little monotonous.
The more recent article, though, gives us some additional examples, such as a family in Colorado whose car was attacked by "a hairy man or hairy animal... (who) had on a blue-and-white checkered shirt and long pants," a woman in Barnstaple, England who saw a "large black dog... (that) walked on its hind legs... and was covered in a cloak and a monk's hood," and a woman in Kent, England who saw a "hulking figure... (who) had a loincloth around its waist and furred boots."

So that's kind of alarming.  Not that monsters are adopting clothes, but that given the choice, they're deciding to wear blue-and-white check, monk's hoods, loincloths, and furry boots.  I mean, it's not that I'm expecting them to wear Armani suits, but even by my own dubious standards of sartorial elegance, this seems a little odd.


It also occurs to me, apropos of the plaid-wearing Bigfoots, that we might be talking about... people.  I say this from personal experience, given that my mom's family comes from the bayou country of southeastern Louisiana.  You know those folks on the This No Longer Has Anything To Do With History Channel, on the show Swamp People?  Yeah, those folks are all cousins of mine.  Seriously.  I have a photograph of my great-grandfather, along with his wife and ten children, wherein he could easily be mistaken for a Sasquatch in overalls.  I have heard from the older members of my family that he was a genuinely nice guy, but he certainly had the "hirsute" thing taken care of.

In any case, the whole thing throws us back into the realm of "the plural of anecdote is not data."  Unfortunately.  Because it adds a certain je ne sais quoi to the field of cryptozoology.  It's also nice to think that in a harsh winter, the Sasquatches have some woolens to keep themselves warm, when their pelts, loincloths, and cloaks aren't enough.

Friday, January 12, 2018

TechNoah

I try to avoid simply writing day after day about people saying loony stuff, but sometimes I just can't help myself.

That's why today we're going to consider a scientist in Turkey who believes not only that Noah's Ark and the Great Flood were real, but that a 500-year-old man and his kids were able to build a gigantic boat by themselves because they had access to nuclear power, drones, and...

... cellphones.

I wish I was making this up.  Yavuz Örnek, who is a lecturer at Istanbul University, admitted during an interview on a talk show that the traditional account was unlikely, but then takes the position that the whole thing becomes plausible if you assume something even less likely.
There were huge 300 to 400-meter-high waves and his [the Prophet Noah’s] son was many kilometers away.  The Quran says Noah spoke with his son.  But how did they manage to communicate?  Was it a miracle?  It could be.  But we believe he communicated with his son via cellphone.
And as far as how the Ark survived the forty-day-long storm, he said it was "built of steel plates" and was "powered by nuclear energy."

Then there's the problem of how Noah got two of each of the nine-million-odd species on Earth on board, not to mention keeping the carnivores from doing what carnivores do:

But Örnek has that part solved, too.  He says that the usual picture of the Ark as filled with lots of animals is incorrect; instead, Noah just collected gametes from each species, and stored those.

This brings up a couple of questions:
  1. Does he really think that prior to the Flood, Noah went all over the Earth, finding animals, and obtaining sperm and eggs from every single species?  Like, he went to Australia and jacked off a wombat?  Because, um, that's kind of a disturbing image.
  2. What happened after the Flood?  Because if all the animals were gone -- drowned in the flood -- having stored sperm and eggs wouldn't do you much good, as there'd be no (for example) female wombats left to incubate the embryos even if you could fertilize the eggs in vitro, rendering your wombat handjob a little useless.
But don't worry about that, Örnek says.  "I am a scientist," he reassures us.  "I speak for science."

As Hemant Mehta points out over at the wonderful site Friendly Atheist, this was hardly the first time that the host of the show, Pelin Çift, had to listen to so-called experts spouting off bizarre theories.   While interviewing Turkish theologian Ali Riza Demircan last year, she collapsed into helpless laughter when Demircan explained that there were certain kinds of sex that were forbidden to devout Muslims, including "oral sex in advanced dimensions."

Whatever that is.  Although I have to admit it sounds like it could be fun.

Then there's theologian Mücahid Cihad Han, who in 2015 was being interviewed and said that people shouldn't masturbate.  A caller to the show told Han that there was nothing wrong with masturbation, even in Mecca during Ramadan.  Appalled, Han told the caller that if he jerked off, he'd "find his hands pregnant in the afterlife."

Which would mean the vast majority of us guys would be saddled with hand-babies in heaven.  Or hell.  Or wherever we're going to end up.

But back to Yavuz Örnek, he of the steel-plated nuclear-powered Ark filled with tubes of eggs and sperm, wherein the captain can communicate with the rest of the crew via cellphones.  What gets me about all this is that saying this stuff doesn't get him laughed out of the country, or at least out of his university.  To be fair, it's not that much weirder than what the American young-earth creationists claim, and they're still widely regarded as intellectually respectable.  (Hell, the whole faculty of Liberty University believes that stuff.)

In any case, all of this proves that there's no idea so completely ludicrous that you can't embellish so as to make it way stupider.  And it also means that, as unlikely as it seems, we have a creationist who is even more ridiculous than Ken Ham.

Which, honestly, is kind of a miracle in and of itself.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Reconstructing mental images

It has long been the Holy Grail of neuroscience to design a device that can not simply see the brain's gross anatomy (a CT scan can do that) or which parts of the brain are active (an fMRI can do that), but to take neural firing patterns and reconstruct what people are thinking.

Which would, honestly, amount to reading someone's mind.

And a significant step has been taken toward that goal by a team of neuroscientists at the ATR Computational Neuroscience Laboratories of Kyoto University.  In a paper that was published just two weeks ago, the scientists, Guohua Shen, Tomoyasu Horikawa1, Kei Majima, and Yukiyasu Kamitani, describe a technology that can take the neural output of a person and use it to come up with an image of what the person was looking at.

The paper, called "Deep Image Reconstruction from Human Brain Activity," is available open-source on the site BioRxiv, and all of you should take the time to read it, because this quick look is not nearly going to do it justice.  The idea is that the researchers are taking a novel approach to detecting fluctuations in the electric field generated by the brain, and from that reconstruct images that are nothing short of astonishing.

The authors write:
Here, we present a novel image reconstruction method, in which the pixel values of an image are optimized to make its [deep neural network] features similar to those decoded from human brain activity at multiple layers.  We found that the generated images resembled the stimulus images (both natural images and artificial shapes) and the subjective visual content during imagery.  While our model was solely trained with natural images, our method successfully generalized the reconstruction to artificial shapes, indicating that our model indeed ‘reconstructs’ or ‘generates’ images from brain activity, not simply matches to exemplars.  A natural image prior introduced by another deep neural network effectively rendered semantically meaningful details to reconstructions by constraining reconstructed images to be similar to natural images.
I'm not going to show you all of the results -- like I said, I want you to take a look at the paper itself -- but here are the results for some images, using three different human subjects:


The top is the image the subject was shown, and underneath are the images the software came up with.

What astonishes me is not just the accuracy -- the spots on the jaguar, the tilt of the stained glass window -- but the consistency from one human subject to the next.  I realize that the results are still pretty rudimentary; no one would look a the image on the bottom right and guess it was an airplane.  (A UFO, perhaps...)  But the technique is only going to improve.  The authors write:
Machine learning-based analysis of human functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) patterns has enabled the visualization of perceptual content.  However, it has been limited to the reconstruction with low-level image bases or to the matching to exemplars.  Recent work showed that visual cortical activity can be decoded (translated) into hierarchical features of a deep neural network (DNN) for the same input image, providing a way to make use of the information from hierarchical visual features...  [H]uman judgment of reconstructions suggests the effectiveness of combining multiple DNN layers to enhance visual quality of generated images.  The results suggest that hierarchical visual information in the brain can be effectively combined to reconstruct perceptual and subjective images.
This is amazingly cool, but I have to admit that it's a little scary.  The idea that we're approaching the point where a device can read people's minds will have some major impacts on issues of privacy.  I mean, think about it; do you want someone able to tell what you're thinking -- or even what you're picturing in your mind -- without your consent?  And if this technology eventually becomes sensitive enough to do with a hand-held device instead of an fMRI headset, how could you stop them?

Maybe I'm being a little alarmist, here.  I know I have Luddite tendencies, so I have to stop myself from yelling "Back in my day we wrote in cuneiform on clay tablets!  And we didn't complain about it!" whenever someone starts telling me about new advances in technology.  But this one...  all I can say is the "wow" is tempered by a sense of "... but wait a moment."

As Michael Crichton put it in Jurassic Park: "[S]cience is starting not to fit the world any more.  [S]cience cannot help us decide what to do with that world, or how to live.  Science can make a nuclear reactor, but it cannot tell us not to build it.  Science can make pesticide, but cannot tell us not to use it."

Put another way, science tells us what we can do, not what we should do.  For the latter, we have to stop and think -- something humans as a whole are not very good at.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Reversing the backfire

I suspect a lot of us have been pining for some good news lately.

Between Kim Jong-Un bragging about his capacity for unleashing nuclear destruction on anyone who insults Dear Leader, to Donald Trump alternately bragging about the size of his genitals and saying that anyone who calls him childish is a stinky stupid poopy-face, to various natural disasters and human-made conflicts, it's all too easy to decide that the only acceptable response is to curl up into a fetal position and whimper softly.

So I was kind of tickled to run into a post made a couple of days ago by Dr. Steve Novella over at the wonderful blog NeuroLogica, which discusses a study that has found the backfire effect isn't significant -- at least under controlled conditions.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The paper, "The Elusive Backfire Effect: Mass Attitudes' Steadfast Factual Adherence" by Thomas Wood of Ohio State University and Ethan Porter of George Washington University, appeared over at the Social Science Research Network on January 2.  It suggests that the backfire effect -- the tendency of people to double down on erroneous beliefs when presented with factual evidence they're wrong -- might not be as pervasive as we'd thought.

The authors write:
Can citizens heed factual information, even when such information challenges their partisan and ideological attachments?  The “backfire effect,” described by Nyhan and Reifler (2010), says no: rather than simply ignoring factual information, presenting respondents with facts can compound their ignorance.  In their study, conservatives presented with factual information about the absence of Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq became more convinced that such weapons had been found.  The present paper presents results from five experiments in which we enrolled more than 10,100 subjects and tested 52 issues of potential backfire.  Across all experiments, we found no corrections capable of triggering backfire, despite testing precisely the kinds of polarized issues where backfire should be expected.  Evidence of factual backfire is far more tenuous than prior research suggests.  By and large, citizens heed factual information, even when such information challenges their ideological commitments.
The encouraging thing about this is that it suggests ignorance is curable.  The initial studies  -- that strong, but incorrect, beliefs were damn near unfixable -- were nothing short of crushing.  When I first read the research by Nyhan and Reifler, my initial reaction was, "Why the hell am I bothering with this blog, then?"  (Not, I hasten to add, that I think I'm always right, or something; but since this blog's overarching theme is sussing out the truth by evaluating the evidence skeptically and dispassionately, the backfire effect kind of blows a giant hole in its efficacy.)

This recent research, however, gives me a ray of hope.  Novella, in his piece at NeuroLogica, says it with his typical eloquence:
If we passively go with the flow of our identity, we will tend to cocoon ourselves in a comfortable echochamber that will bathe us only in facts that have been curated for maximal ideological ease.  This feedback loop will not only maintain our ideology but polarize it, making us more radical, and less reasonable. 
Ideally, therefore, we should be emotionally aloof to any ideological identity, to any particular narrative or belief system.  Further, we should seek out information based upon how reliable it is, rather than how much it confirms what we already believe or want to belief.  In fact, to correct for this bias we should specifically seek out information that contradicts our current beliefs.
My only caveat about this whole thing is that even if the backfire effect is minor and rare, correcting false beliefs depends on people being exposed to the correct information in the first place.  I was just talking with my wife yesterday about the role Fox News has in insulating Donald Trump's diehard followers from accurate information about what he's saying and doing.  It not only shields them from anti-Trump editorializing and political spin; but it winnows out the actual quotes, video clips, and tweets, only giving listeners the ones that put him in a favorable light.  While the rest of the major networks are buzzing about the disastrous interview with Stephen Miller (who John Fugelsang hilariously called "Gerbil Goebbels") and Steve Bannon's implosion and the Michael Wolff book and Trump's asinine and infantile response to it, Fox News is doing a piece on investigating the Clinton Foundation.

Because that is clearly more relevant than what the President of the United States and his administration are doing.

So if people are being shielded from the facts, they never have the opportunity to self-correct, even if the backfire effect isn't as big a deal as we'd thought.

Anyhow, at least this is a glimmer of encouragement that humanity is potentially salvageable after all.  For which I am very thankful.  For one thing, being in a fetal position on the floor is uncomfortable, and confuses my dog, not that the latter is all that difficult.  For another, I kind of like writing this blog, and it'd be a bummer to throw in the towel.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Avoidance of things past

Can we establish something right at the get-go?

Just because something is old doesn't mean it's a good idea.

Okay, ancient Greek sculpture is pretty awesome.  Ditto Roman architecture.  More recently, but still a while back, I find that music by Heinrich Ignaz von Biber (1644-1704) beats hollow any music from Justin Bieber (1994-present), and in fact I am inclined to think that music's pretty much been in decline since Johann Sebastian Bach died in 1750.

But in general?  There are a lot of things from the past that we really should leave in the past.  Consider the Four Humors Theory of Medicine, in which all disease was thought to be due to an imbalance in the four "humors" of the body -- blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile.  It's what gave rise to the lovely idea of bloodletting to treat disease (not to mention the words sanguine, phlegmatic, bilious, and melancholy).

And that's hardly the only example.  There's trial by ordeal, sacrificing virgins in volcanoes, reading the future by looking at the entrails of chickens, and belief in witchcraft.  So while it's natural enough to venerate our ancestors, it bears remembering that they came up with some truly awful ideas.

Which is why I started rolling my eyes at the title of an article in Quartz, and pretty much didn't stop till the last line.

The article in question, "Horoscopes 2018: Astrology Isn’t Fake—It’s Just Been Ruined by Modern Psychology" by Ida C. Benedetto, claims that reading portents in the skies isn't wrong; the problem lies with the damn researchers trying to elucidate what's actually happening in the brain.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Benedetto spends a good bit of her article slamming the whole "Sun Signs" thing, which is what gives us the horoscope columns in the daily newspaper, wherein you can find out that if you're an Aquarius, while you're walking to work today you will trip over a curb and drop your cup of coffee down a storm sewer.  (Okay, I honestly don't have any clue what is going to happen to you if you're an Aquarius.  For one thing, I'm a Scorpio.  For another, it's a lot of bollocks in any case, so it doesn't really matter.)

Benedetto writes:
Don’t relate to your sign?  That might be because sun-signs astrology is a recent creation designed to appeal to mass audiences...
The sun-sign approach to astrology continued to grow in popularity through newspaper columns in the first half of the 20th century and boomed when New Age went mainstream in the 1960s.  Historian Nick Campion notes that “sun-sign astrology domesticated the universe” at a time when astronomy discovered that our galaxy was one small dot among billions in a perpetually expanding universe.  When modern science was making humanity look smaller and more insignificant than ever, people found it reassuring to think of their personalities as being reflected in the stars.
In which, so far, I find nothing to disagree with.  But then she tells us that we need to jettison modern sun sign astrology, and replace it with the astrology from the ancient Greeks.

Now, I don't mean to run down the ancient Greeks, who did some amazing stuff.  But their knowledge of the stars -- i.e., astroNOMY, not astroLOGY -- was pretty rudimentary.  After all, they're the ones who, presumably after drinking way too much ouzo, looked up at random assemblages of stars and had the following conversation, only in ancient Greek:
Ancient Greek Guy #1:  Dude.  Don't you think that bunch of stars over there looks just like a "sea goat?" 
Ancient Greek Guy #2:  What the fuck is a "sea goat?" 
Ancient Greek Guy #1:  It's a goat with the tail of a fish.  Here, have another shot of ouzo. 
Ancient Greek Guy #2:  Yeah, now I see the resemblance.  Let's call it "Capricorn." 
Ancient Greek Guy #1:  Isn't that name Latin?  We're ancient Greeks.
Ancient Greek Guy #2:  Hey, bro, you were just talking about "sea goats."  Don't come after me about accuracy. 
Ancient Greek Guy #1:  Oh, okay, fair enough.  [takes another slug of ouzo]  And hey, look at those stars!  That bunch looks like a virgin, don't you think? 
Ancient Greek Guy #2:  A virgin?  How can you tell at this distance? 
Ancient Greek Guy #1:  Why else would she be up there in the sky? 
Ancient Greek Guy #2:  Okay, that makes sense.
So it's not like I'm that inclined to take their knowledge of what was actually happening in the heavens all that seriously.  Benedetto, however, says that both the current astronomers and astrologers have missed the point entirely.  So what, exactly, does she believe?  It takes her a while to get to the point -- she seems much clearer on what she doesn't believe -- but she finally has this to say:
One of the greatest sticking points where traditional and modern astrology diverge is destiny.  Hellenistic astrology describes a causal relationship between the movement of planets and stars and the material world on earth.  The ancients also believed in the notion of fate.  Fatedness runs counter to our modern notion of free will, and therefore many find traditional astrology unpalatable.  However, we do not need to believe in a fatalistic view of planetary movements to revive some insights in the work of the ancient astrologers who espoused them.
Which sounds pretty mushy, but that's honestly the most solid thing she has to say about it.  She then quotes an astrologer whose name is (I'm not making this up) "Wonder Bright," who says that you can reconcile the old and new astrology if you look at it just right.

"Modern counseling methods," Bright says, "are a boon to the astrologer and probably account for the large percentage of women studying and practicing astrology nowadays, which would have been unthinkable in previous centuries."

And as far as that goes, I can easily reconcile old and new astrology:

They're both bullshit.  The end.

What strikes me about all of this is that both flavors of astrologer, old and new, don't ever ask what are really the only relevant questions here:
  1. Is there scientifically admissible evidence for any of this?
  2. Is there any plausible mechanism by which the motion of distant planets against even more distant stars could affect events here on Earth?
Of course, since the answer to both of them is "No," it's unsurprising she didn't address the issue.

She ends with a rather amusing statement: "Traditional astrology, with its wealth of ancient texts, deserves the same respectful suspension of disbelief as other old-world scientific fields."  Righty-o.  I'll start first.  You "respectfully suspend your disbelief" with respect to reading the future from patterns of sticks dropped on the floor, and I'll do the same with respect to what happens when Neptune is in Sagittarius.  (Once again, I have no idea either if Neptune is currently in Sagittarius, or if so what it means, and moreover, I don't give a damn about either one.)

So the whole argument is rather ridiculous.  It brings up the quote from Cicero, who wondered how "two augurs could pass on the street and look one another in the face without laughing."

As for me, however, I think I'm going to go listen to some music by Bach.  Whatever else you can say about those folks back in the past, they sure did know how to write a cool prelude and fugue.