The Mars Effect

 

(This Buffalo News column was first published on April 1, 1996.)

 

      April Fools¹ Day.  Time for my annual visit to a step-child of Nature in that nether world of pseudo-science and hoaxes.

      This year¹s story is derived from the journal, The Skeptical Enquirer, and a new book from Prometheus Press: ³The ŒMars Effect¹,² written for the French Committee for the Study of Paranormal Phenomena and edited here by Ranjit Sandhu of the Buffalo Center for Inquiry.

      What makes this small story of special interest is the appearance in its cast of characters of so many other local people.  Our wonderful debunker, Paul Kurtz, plays a central role, as does former University at Buffalo statistics professor and my College of Mathematical Sciences colleague, Marvin Zelen.  Zelen is now at Harvard.  There is even a cameo appearance by basketball player Bob McAdoo, who for a brief time brought his special grace to the Memorial Auditorium court.

      Who among us have not looked at our horoscope?  We find our Œsign¹ or, forgetting what stars Œinfluenced¹ our birth, our birthdate, and we read the bland phrases that predict our day¹s fortune.  Because the projections are most often favorable or at least cautionary, we come away chuckling over our Œfate¹.

      But do we believe it?  Sadly, many do.  One estimate indicates that over a third of young people believe that these distant constellations have a profound influence on their lives.  And who can blame them when astrology books are best sellers and both a U. S. president¹s wife and a Canadian premier were captured by these specious projections?

      Enter our main player, Michel Gauquelin.  As a young man, Gauquelin achieved popularity by reading horoscopes and palms.  But when he sought a rational basis for his activities, he saw through traditional astrology and became an outspoken critic of it.

      However, he and his wife Francoise asked themselves if any celestial bodies did influence our activities.  They analyzed some birth data and, although they found none for stars, they thought they found a planetary connection.  They claimed correlations between Saturn and scientists, Jupiter and military men, Mars and sports champions.  Those born during the first two hours after the rise of the planet or during the two hours after it climbed highest in the sky would be affected by it.

      The Gauquelins checked hospital records for 2088 European sports champions and claimed to have found that 22% of them were born during those periods.  They contrasted this with the one-sixth (17%) of the general population born during those 4 (out of 24) hours in the day.  Most of us would not consider that increase of much interest.  However, unlike those fuzzy and therefore uncheckable predictions of most astrologers, this one provided a claim that could be evaluated.

      Kurtz, Zelen, and George Abell did just that for U.S. sports champions.  They found no influence.  Although they had organized their study under Gauquelin¹s scrutiny, the Frenchman now demurred.  He no longer approved of the selection criteria and also claimed, probably correctly, that since 1950 birth times are often influenced by medical intervention.  (Obstetricians quite reasonably prefer to deliver babies during working hours.)

      After a decade of argument and Michel Gauquelin¹s unfortunate death, representatives of the French scientific community carefully reanalyzed the European data.  They conclude: ³The results are clear and do not show the least effect for the ŒMars effect¹,² and they even continue, ³Anecdotally, it was amusing to note a higher frequency of births of athletes with Venus in key sectors than Mars.²

      But lest they encourage another silly theory, they carefully add: ³This frequency does not signify however an undue Venusian influence.²

      Exit, we hope, another example of contemporary irrationality.—Gerry Rising