​Stop Blaming the Moon for Your Problems

“The Moon is innocent.”

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Apr 6 2015, 1:15pm

​Image: ​​beaumontpete/Flickr

Ever felt like your rotten luck was always weirdly tied to the full Moon? Well, it's not. And there's an astronomer on a quest to prove it.

"The Moon is innocent," said Jean-Luc Margot, a professor of planetary astronomy at UCLA.

It may sound strange for an astronomer to publish a research paper in a nursing science journal. But that's exactly what Margot felt compelled to do, to exonerate the Moon from an age-old accusation: That its phases influence everything from the timing of births to likelihood of getting sick. Even today, such beliefs are prevalent among some hospital workers.

"Questionable beliefs are at the root of many of society's worst problems," Margot told me. "While I sought to dispel myths about the Moon, I feel that lessons learned about flawed beliefs related to the Moon might be applied to a broader context."

Margot's new study confirms what scientists have known for a long time: That the idea of lunar cycles exerting an influence on our affairs is, frankly, sheer lunacy.

Moon lore has been a part of human culture since ancient times. We've erected monuments and shrines to the Moon, worshipped gods and goddesses within its lustrous face, drawn our calendars and planted our crops around its cycles.

We've also ascribed it a sinister side. The word "lunatic" was first used to describe a person who suffers periodic bouts of insanity that align with the lunar cycle. And then there's the werewolf, which, since its early appearances in medieval folklore, has embodied the belief that the full moon begets the monsters within us.

Most of us no longer believe in werewolves, but even today, we attribute all manner of troubles to the full moon, from epileptic seizures to anxiety, insanity, and murderous rage. While the overwhelming majority of scientific studies agree that this is nothing more than superstition, several research papers have claimed to find correlations between the full moon and our well-being. These include a highly cited 2004 study, which examined Spanish hospital records for two years, and concluded that the number of admissions for gastrointestinal bleeding was significantly higher during the full moon.

"This article is flawed but had remained unchallenged," Margot told me. "Something had to be done."

As Margot argues in his new paper, the 2004 study used faulty data collection and analysis procedures that essentially invalidate its conclusions. For one, to parse 738 days worth of data into "full moon" and "not full moon" observations, the researchers matched each calendar day to a corresponding day of the lunar month. But, as Margot explains, the timing of the full moon does not map neatly to 24-hour calendar days, particularly when time zone changes and daylight savings time are considered. As a result, this method introduces variability that could influence the researchers' findings.

Even more troubling, the authors treated every 29th day on the lunar calendar as that month's "full moon" day. But, Margot explains, the time interval between successive full moons actually varies, from 29.3 to 29.8 calendar days. While it may sound like a trivial detail, in this particular context it's anything but.

On 13 occasions, Margot finds, the authors associated the full moon with day 29 of the lunar calendar, when it should have been ascribed to day 30. Out of the 25 "full moon days" in the dataset, then, more than half were incorrect.

Upon complete re-analysis of the authors' data, Margot finds no correlation between the lunar cycle and hospital admissions. He goes on to review the long history of scientific literature showing that there's no relationship between birth rates and lunar phase. Or, for that matter, criminal behavior, depression, car accidents, or surgery outcomes.

Blaming the Moon for your woes may be technically incorrect, but still, of all the places we could be casting false blame, this one seems relatively harmless. Margot, however, believes such thinking sets a dangerous precedent.

"If you habituate your mind to believe things that are not aligned with reality in benign areas, it can spread into other, more important areas of your life," he said.

Indeed, we need only look at the recent measles outbreak, the slaughter of Earth's rhinos, or climate change denial to appreciate what a disastrous effect misguided beliefs can have on society.

And if stamping out dangerous false beliefs means we ought to stop scapegoating the Moon every time we have a bad day, that seems like a worthwhile sacrifice to make.

Besides, the Moon is awesome, and it's been taking our crap for far too long.