Sunday, January 30, 2011

What Exactly is Accomplished by Asserting “Astrology is Rubbish”?

Posted by Darin Hayton on 01/30 at 05:56 PM

Efforts to attack and condemn astrology are not new. At the end of the fourth century St. Augustine condemned astrology in his Confessions, because it encouraged sinful behavior by seemingly denying freewill and was no more accurate than chance. At the end of the fifteenth century Pico della Mirandola composed his Disputationes adversus astrologiam divinatricem, which remains the most thorough-going critique of nearly every aspect of astrology. In 1586 Pope Sixtus V issued a Papal Bull condemning the practice and other divinatory arts. Modern condemnations continue apace. In the last century such attacks have regularly expressed shock and surprise that despite a rational, modern, scientific worldview, and despite the “experiments” that have shown astrology to be no more accurate than chance, people continue to believe in astrology. Astrology must be, therefore, an intentional fraud perpetrated on a “gullible populace.”

Throughout the twentieth century opponents of astrology have displayed a remarkable doggedness, particularly in the face of the inefficacy of their efforts. These opponents have also relied on a small set of rhetorical moves or straw-man positions to “refute” astrology. Regrettably, the most recent brouhaha over astrology adds little. In light of the contempt opponents have for the intellectual abilities of both astrologers and their customers and in light of utter ineffectiveness of their attacks, what is the point of these anti-astrology polemics? What really is at stake? And what really is accomplished?*

In 1914 the U.S. Department of Agriculture printed a short notice finally laying to rest once and for all the belief that the planets and moon affect the weather:

The belief still to be found in all countries that the planets and the moon do affect the weather never had any scientific basis whatever; it is only a remnant of the many superstitions generated and fostered by that other greater superstition, astrology.
We have every reason to believe that neither the planets nor the moon can have any appreciable effect on the weather, because they furnish so little heat upon which all weather changes ultimately depend, and this belief is fully supported by weather records.1

This note immediately attracted attention in the New York Times, which ran a short opinion piece lamenting the fact that a U.S. government agency would have to waste its time debunking astrology: “It is decidedly discouraging for those of us who try to believe in the intelligence of the American public to note that the Department of Agriculture has felt constrained to issue a formal, official denial of planetary and lunar influence on terrestrial weather.”2 The opinion piece went on to decry the fact that sufficient numbers of people believed in planetary influences to warrant an official governmental response: “that it [belief in planetary influences] survives in sufficient amount to need Governmental attention is humiliating as well as surprising.” Only those “densely illiterate or else without the mental resources required for relieving in saner ways the tedium of endless leisure” would subscribe to astrology.

Shortly after the discovery of Pluto, Popular Science published an article debunking astrology: “Famous Scientists Tell Why Astrology is a Fake.” The author, Jesse Gelders, lamented the fact that “Radio has given new impetus to the oldest brand of pseudoscientific hokum know to man—astrology.”3

Jesse Gelders explains why “Astrology is a Fake” (Source: Popular Science (Sep. 1931), 12)

Gelders then invokes a number of famous scientists, physicists and astronomer, to denounce astrology. “These men of science are unanimous in declaring that there is no scientific basis whatever for the deductions and predictions made by the astrologers, and that there are no known forces of influences such as the astrologers ascribe to the stars and planets.”4 These famous scientist claim that astrologers are merely guessing and that any successful forecasts are simply the product of chance. Some claim to have tested astrology by handing out horoscopes to members of a class—presumably the old “hand out the same horoscope to everybody and ask if it is accurate” trick—or by asking six astrologers the same question to see if they were correct and consistent. Predictably, they found astrology wanting.

Astronomers and physicists denounce astrology (Source: Popular Science (Sep. 1931), 15)

Gelders then rehearses and rejects some of the possible mechanisms for planetary influence: gravity, “vibrations of light,” electromagnetic, along with more creative mechanisms such as “mysterious, undiscovered vibration from the planets” and the possibility that “the planets do their ‘work’ by intercepting and shutting off raditions that come from other parts of the heavens.”5 Admitting that there might be other yet undiscovered forces in the universe, Gelders concluded that “no force has yet been suggested that would take the claims of the astrologers out of the class of worthlesss hokum.”6 He spends a paragraph describing precession and why the signs of the zodiac and the constellations no longer coincide:

When astrology adopted the zodiac, about 2,200 years ago, the sun was in the habit of reaching Aries, the first sign, at the beginning of the natural year, the spring equinox. Today, the equinox occurs almost a month before the sun makes its apparent entry into the constellation of Aries. The signs of the zodiac have slipped a complete cog.7

Precession seems to be one of the standard charges against astrology and astrologers. The doctrine “hokum” because the constellations no longer align with their signs, and astrologers are ignorant charlatans because they fail to realize (or acknowledge) that precession occurs. And then there are those pesky newly discovered planets: Neptune, Uranus, and Pluto.

Predictably, Gelders’s article elicited a number or letters from readers. Opponents lauded Gelders and Popular Science while proponents condemned them. Neither audience was persuaded of anything new. Gelders’s article only confirmed their presuppositions.

In 1941 the astronomer Bart Bok started his 40-year campaign against astrology. In his “Scientists Look at Astrology,” a detailed article published in Scientific Monthly, Bok and Margaret Mayall surveyed quickly basic astrological technique and then the history of astrology before asking: “Why is it that physical scientists are, apparently without exception, opposed to the teachings of astrology?”8 Gravity, radiation, and light are all insufficiently powerful mechanisms to cause any appreciable influence. They then ask: “Is it possible that there exists some as yet unknown way in which the planets can exert their influence on human affairs?” No. “It is extremely unlikely that the planets … would affect human affairs according to the generally accepted scheme of astrology.”10 Like Gelders, Bok and Mayall simply deny the possibility of a yet-to-be-discovered mechanism for astrological influence.

But even if it were possible to assume that a mechanism for planetary influence could exist, the precession of the equinoxes negates any possibility of such a mechanism. Precession again vitiates all astrological assumptions:

Astrologers attach great influence to the signs of the zodiac. Because of precession of the equinoxes the apparent positions of these signs have shifted by more than twenty-five degrees during the past twenty centuries. It is impossible to understand how the stars can affect human affairs, but it is doubly difficult to suggest a mechanism to account for the influence of the zodiacal signs, which continue to change their positions among the stars.11

Along with the problem of precession, Bok and Mayall invoke once again the problem of recently discovered planets. Further, they claim that there is no evidence of correlations that would justify considering (not accepting, but considering) astrology a “legitimate field of scientific inquiry.” They do not indicate what correlations they would consider valid, but they dismiss any statistical correlation between zodiacal birth signs and professions. In the absence of a mechanism or supporting correlations, “no one, with a high-school training in physics, should be fooled into accepting an explanation of the laws of astrology.”

All the standard pieces are here: no mechanism, the damning example of precession, the invocation and rejection of “birth signs” as meaningful, the new planets, and the dismissal of astrologers and their audience as uneducated, irrational, and, implicitly, mentally deficient.

In 1975 Bok and the philosopher Paul Kurtz gathered together “186 leading scientists, including 19 Nobel Laureates,” to sign a statement, “Objections to Astrology.” Published initially in The Humanist and then republished as a book and in various forms in Science News and covered in the NY Times, the statement became something of a manifesto for scientists who pointed to it as the final and unassailable refutation of astrology.

Bok and Kurtz’s “Objections to Astrology” (Source: Science News 108 (Sep. 13, 1975), 166)

Astrology was a magical belief for which there is no possible mechanism. The stars and planets are too far away to exert appreciable gravitational or other effects. The positions of distant heavenly bodies cannot have any influence, nor can “the sign under which one was born determine one’s compatibility or incompatibility with other people.” Regrettably, “one would imagine, in this day of widespread enlightenment and education, that it would be unnecessary to debunk beliefs based on magic and superstition.” Unfortunately, irrational people continue to believe. The main weight of the argument is borne the authority of the 186 scientists, and the shame of being thought to be irrational.

The “Objections” elicited a number of letters to Science News. The first of them apparently thought Bok et al. had not sufficiently emphasized the gravest objection to astrology: the precession of the equinoxes. Precession “makes absurd nonsense of the character traits associated with each House, and hence of all astrological pronouncements. This argument ought to carry far more weight with intelligent young people than any ‘argument from authority,’ even prominent scientific authority.”12

When the recent brouhaha erupted over a possible thirteenth sign, thanks to Parke Kunkle, astronomers and opponents of astrology invoke once again the same tropes and commit the same straw-man fallacies. Kunkle apparently discovered that precession has profound consequences for astrology (one version of the story is here). The story was immediately picked up by Hank Campbell at Science 2.0 in his post “First Pluto, Now Astrology?” and Jesse McKinley at the NY Times in “Did Your Horoscope Predict This?.” The Independent used the opportunity to raise questions about astrology and belief in astrology in its “Horoscopes: A sign of the times.” Although many people believe in astrology, the article claims 75% of people read their horoscope in the paper, there is no evidence for it. Astrology and horoscopes “are the victory of hope over reason.” Clearly, the news that precession has moved the signs reveals astrology—that is, the horoscope in the paper—to be a farce.

Martin Robbins at The Guardian jumped on the bandwagon in his “Astrologers angered by stars,” which moved beyond Kunkle’s original story and become a general anti-astrology, anti-astrologers, anti-astrology-believer story.13

Beyond these popular versions, more recently another astronomer weighed in on the foolishness of astrology. Dr. Angela Speck wrote a piece for Minnesota Public Radio: “Signs of the Zodiac May Have Changed, but They’re Still All Bull.” She rehearses the standard precession charge. She then claims that astrologers will dismiss this as unimportant because they use the tropical zodiac. But then claims that this is merely a “scam to keep you coming back for more.” Her claim, once again, privileges the position of the constellation in some absolute way, and concludes that if those positions have shifted, then the doctrine they support is invalid. Moreover, the boundaries of the constellations are arbitrary, defined by astronomers, not astrologers, in 1930. Oh, and then there are those pesky now aging but still relatively new planets (and one former planet): Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto. “So if you happen to be Aquarian, Piscean or Scorpion, your sign didn’t have a ruler until relatively recently (astronomically speaking). And if your sign is Scorpio—you have a dwarf planet for a ruler.” Her conclusion is inescapable: “astrology is and always has been complete and utter nonsense.”

Once again we see an invocation of authority—the IAU and the astronomers who have defined the constellations’ boundaries—the argument from precession, the new planets, and the ascription of nonsense and irrationality to believers in astrology.

Scientists claim that arguments from authority do not carry logical force. Yet they rely on them in almost every effort to dismiss astrology. They then claim that precession invalidate astrology and suggest that astrologers are dolts because they either do not know about precession or have not taken it into account. Yet astrologers have studied and accounted for precession since at least Ptolemy borrowed it from Hipparchus. The standard medieval textbook used to teach astrologers the basics of planetary motion, Gerard of Cremona’s Theorica planetarum, devoted a section to precession. Georg Peuerbach’s enhanced and improved version of this text, his Theoricae novae planetarum, devoted an entire chapter to precession.

A diagram from Peuerbach’s discussion of precession (Source: Georg Peuerbach, Theoricae novae planetarum (1474), available from Universitätssternwarte, Institut für Astronomie, Universtät Wien)

Moreover, the assertion that absolute position of the constellations especially as the determining factor for a person’s birth sign is the fundamental aspect of astrology seems problematic. Opponents continually refute the usefulness of the these zodiacal signs as meaningful. But how many practicing astrologers invoke birth signs in such a way? Birth signs are merely indicators of the sun’s position at the time of birth. There is more to astrology than the sun’s position. Refuting a doctrine that astrologers don’t hold seems, at best, ancillary and probably irrelevant to any attack on astrology.

The claim that a tropical zodiac is a scam because when “we measure or calculate the positions of the planets, the sun and the moon, we do it with respect to the stars — not the equinox” seems equally irrelevant. We commonly use different points of reference and coordinate systems, even ones that are changing, without difficulty. Is a map invalid because it points to the “geographic north pole” instead of the “magnetic north pole”? And are both systems a scam because the magnetic pole seems to be drifting? Dr. Speck’s assertion that certain zodiacal signs did not have rulers until the discovery of Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto reflects a gross ignorance of history. Ptolemy codified the rulers for each of the signs in his Tetrabiblos. We may not believe in the efficacy of those rulers, but astrologers certainly agreed upon the rulers for those signs.

Whatever else might be the case, astronomers seem singularly unable to avoid denouncing astrology and equally incapable of persuading proponents of astrology to relinquish their conviction (or even to dissuade the astrology-curious). Maybe astronomers’ lack of success is related to the cavalier approach they adopt when attacking astrology. They certainly have not engaged with the body of knowledge they hope to refute. Instead, they attack caricatures and straw men. They argue from authority rather than logic. And they seem to ignore astrology’s technical details—such as anything approaching an understanding of positional astronomy—and ignorant of astrology’s history. To be fair, they have occasionally asked questions about possible mechanisms for astral influence, but then dismiss the very possibility of such a mechanism. No doubt they realize that their invectives do not constitute logically compelling arguments. So what then is the point of their denunciations? And whom are they trying to convince?

And what really is at stake in this enduring battle between science and astrology? Are astronomers afraid that their funding will suddenly go to astrologers? Does the fate of the free world or the rational mind or science depend on refuting astrology? Given the characterization of astrologers and believers in astrology as simple-minded, uneducated, irrational dupes, what threat do these people pose to astronomers and scientists? Does belief in astrology stand for a purported, societal-wide irrationality that threatens the entire practice of science? That seems a bit apocalyptic, but maybe. And what is served by the denigrating rhetoric typically used to brand astrologers frauds and charlatans? Surely it would be more effective to adopt a more conversational approach rather than labeling astrologers and their customers irrational, superstitious dupes.

But maybe despite its guise of rationality and argumentation, the anti-astrology polemic isn’t intended to persuade an opponent any more than any other polemic. Maybe it’s merely a secular form of “preaching to the choir.”14

*To be clear, this is not meant as a defense of astrology or astrologers but rather an analysis of the typical form as well as the common tropes found in the anti-astrology polemics. Nor is this an effort to assert once again that astrology was an important intellectual activity in the past that provided the motivation for much of the science that we would now call astronomy. See Rebekah Higgitt’s recent post “Astrology is rubbish” for some indication of that historical relationship.
1U.S. Department of Agriculture, “Newsletter” (June 1914).
2“Astrologers Solemnly Discredited,” NY Times (June 20, 1914), 20.
3Jesse Gelders, “Famous Scientists Tell Why Astrology is a Fake,” Popular Science (Sep. 1931), 12.
4Gelders, “Famous Scientists,” 14.
5Gelders, “Famous Scientists,” 112.
6Gelders, “Famous Scientists,” 113.
7Gelders, “Famous Scientists,” 113.
8Bart Bok and Margaret Mayall, “Scientists Look at Astrology,” Scientific Monthly 52 (Mar. 19, 1941), 241.
10Bok and Mayall, “Scientists,” 241.
11Bok and Mayall, “Scientists,” 241.
12John Spillman Jones, “Science vs astrology,” Science News 108 (Oct. 4, 1975), 223.
13See Rebekah Higgitt’s “Astrology is rubbish” for a nice commentary on Robbins and the astrologers’ petition.
14Here it would be nice to engage with the demarcation and boundary-work scholarship, but I will save that for a future post.

Tags: astrology, astronomy, bart bok, georg peuerbach, precession, pseudoscience, ptolemy


Comment posted by Thony C. on 01/31 at 02:29 AM

Thank you Mr Hayton, as always a model of scholarhip, rationality and elucidation.

Comment posted by Paul Halpern on 02/16 at 11:11 PM

Interesting analysis—it is fascinating why there has been such a need for anti-astrology rhetoric.  Best to offer kids a strong science education and understanding of the scientific method so that they can become well-read in the literature and draw their own conclusion.

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