Jim Lippard's Foreword



Of the correlations found in the data of Michel and Françoise Gauquelin, the one which has received the most scrutiny from skeptical observers has been that between the location of Mars at time of birth and athletic ability, the "Mars effect." The Belgian Para Committee grappled with it from 1956 until its public exchanges with Gauquelin ceased in 1982 after the Para Committee declined to respond to Gauquelin's arguments (1). The US-based Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) next became involved, from the beginning of its existence (as it acquired work begun with a challenge from one if its members a year prior to its founding) to 1983. Finally, the French Comite Francais pour l'Etude des Phenomenes Paranormaux (CFEPP) became involved in 1981 shortly after the completion of CSICOP 's replication attempt, but still has yet to publish its report as of this writing (though the results have been announced in the January/February 1995 Skeptical Inquirer).

In each case, the skeptical organizations have become involved with some degree of controversy. With the Para Committee, the problem was that the skeptics successfully replicated Gauquelin's correlation, but attempted to explain the "Mars effect" as an artifact of known variations in birth times. CSICOP 's problems stemmed from the fact that a study designed to test the Para Committee's explanation proved it wrong, and so CSICOP shifted gears to try to refute the existence of the "Mars effect" correlation at all. In the process, internal political squabbles arose as astronomer Dennis Rawlins attempted to get CSICOP 's team to admit their errors. For CFEPP, the major problem has been the long delay between the beginning of the study and the still-awaited publication of the results, as well as divergence from the protocol established in conjunction with Michel Gauquelin. I was first exposed to the "Mars effect" controversy while a university undergraduate in the mid-1980s, about the time I founded the Phoenix Skeptics. My interest in organized skepticism had been piqued by my discovery of The Skeptical Inquirer in 1983 and my attendance of the 1984 CSICOP conference at Stanford University. I soon ordered a complete set of back issues of The Skeptical Inquirer and read them all cover to cover. The extended controversy over the "Mars effect" caught my attention, in particular because of Dennis Rawlins' dissent within the skeptical community. Until then, I had supposed the skeptics to be the dispassionate voices of objectivity and reason, cleanly and completely debunking every alleged paranormal claim to come along. I had been a naive disbeliever, but was now confronted with an apparently paranormal claim which appeared to offer some difficulty to the skeptics.

After much communication with and observation of fellow skeptics, I concluded that skeptical groups can suffer from the same irrationality, dogmatism, and "group-think" as other groups. (Indeed, this seems to me now to be an essential characteristic of human social behaviour). Evidence that resists refutation and threatens foundational beliefs of a group may cause the group to reject, suppress, or ignore that evidence.(2) Only when outside forces (or the occasional turncoat within the group) create enough pressure does the group finally deal with the evidence fairly, revising its core beliefs to accommodate it. In the worst case, a group may not change until the more dogmatic members have died off (Planck's principle). This behaviour has been exemplified by skeptical organizations with respect to the "Mars effect," as the contents of this volume reveal. While a few individuals attempt to get to the bottom of matters and press for the groups to act in accordance with their espoused principles of rationality and objectivity, they typically have been forced out of or resign from the groups in frustration (e.g., Luc de Marre, Dennis Rawlins, Richard Kammann).

On the other side of the coin, the "Mars effect" controversy has been seized upon by a number of promoters of paranormal claims to use as a club with which to bash skeptical organizations, accusing them of incompetence, dishonesty, and outright fraud. Unfortunately, many of the resulting publications have been written by individuals who did not take the time to thoroughly examine the controversy or the claims, and their accounts are typically filled with inaccuracies if not outright distortions. Such publications also almost inevitably fail to make mention of the considerable body of work by Michel Gauquelin refuting astrological claims. Despite the failings of skeptical groups, their criticisms of their opponents are frequently on target.

The book you hold in your hands is an examination of the skeptical studies of the "Mars effect." Collected here for the first time is much information previously available only in obscure publications or directly from some of the principals involved on all sides of the controversy. Kenneth Irving clearly explains the history of the "Mars effect" and the controversies which have accompanied the attempts of skeptical organizations to explain it or refute it. Suitbert Ertel performs a detailed re-analysis of the three major skeptical studies with a more objective measure of athletic eminence and offers explanations for peculiarities in the skeptics' data. My own contribution is a chronicle of events and publications pertaining to these controversies, focusing mainly on CSICOP's involvement. This is followed by a similar chronology from Ertel regarding the CFEPP study, and a brief summary of astronomical facts about Mars from Rudolf Smit.

It is my hope that this volume will help to clear up misconceptions about the "Mars effect" controversies and promote serious investigation rather than either partisan debunking or advocacy.

Jim Lippard, Phoenix, Arizona, 17 December 1995

Notes:
1. Marcello Truzzi, "Postscript by the Editor," The Zetetic Scholar #10 (December 1982), p. 71.
2. Thomas Gilovich's How We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life (1991, Macmillan) explains a number of ways in which undesirable evidence is dismissed; see especially pp. 53-56. Skeptics tend to point out such factors regarding the beliefs and research of others, but to ignore them in their own case -- itself an example of what Gilovich describes.

© Jim Lippard, 1996

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