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astrology

...as above, so below...

"It should not be considered unbelievable that one can retrieve useful knowledge and sacred relics from astrological folly and godlessness. From this filthy mud one can glean even an occasional escargot, oysters or an eel for one's nutrition; in this enormous heap of worm-castings there are silk-worms to be found; and, finally, out of this foul-smelling dung-heap a diligent hen can scratch up an occasional grain-seed -- indeed, even a pearl or a gold nugget." --Johannes Kepler

Astrology, in its traditional form, is a type of divination based on the theory that the positions and movements of celestial bodies (stars, planets [except the one you are born on or those in other solar systems], Sun, and Moon) at the time of birth profoundly influence a person's life. Some forms of astrology claim that terrestrial events such as natural disasters are predicted by various celestial arrangements or events. Given the innumerable relationships of celestial items, it would be surprising if one could not find some correlation between earthly events like tornadoes, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, hurricanes, droughts, fires, etc., and an arrangement of planets in relation to the Sun or Moon. Correlation does not prove causality, but it is good enough for most astrologers. (For a classic example of this kind of reasoning, see Valerie Livina's blog. She has sent me several e-mails about things like a full solar eclipse viewable from China in July 2009 and stories about earthquakes in Japan the following month. "Do you still think it is just a coincidence?" she asked. Yes, I do. We call this the post hoc fallacy in my neighborhood.)

In its psychological form, astrology is a type of New Age therapy used for self-understanding and personality analysis (astrotherapy). In all forms, astrology is a manifestation of magical thinking.

Ivan Kelly, who has written many articles critical of astrology, thinks that astrology

has no relevance to understanding ourselves or our place in the cosmos. Modern advocates of astrology cannot account for the underlying basis of astrological associations with terrestrial affairs, have no plausible explanation for its claims, and have not contributed anything of cognitive value to any field of the social sciences.

Even so, astrology is believed by millions of people and it has survived for thousands of years. The ancient Chaldeans and Assyrians engaged in astrological divination some 3,000 years ago. In India, astrology has been practiced for at least two millennia. Known as Jyotisa, it and several variations such as Nadi astrology are still widely practiced in India where reincarnation is a prominent belief. The light from the heavens supposedly affects each incarnation and these systems of astrology claim to be able to discern useful information for guiding a person through his or her current life.

By 450 BCE the Babylonians had developed the 12-sign zodiac, but it was the Greeks--from the time of Alexander the Great to their conquest by the Romans--who provided most of the fundamental elements of modern Western astrology. The spread of astrological practice was checked by the rise of Christianity, which emphasized divine intervention and free will. During the Renaissance, astrology regained popularity, in part due to rekindled interest in science and astronomy. Christian theologians, however, warred against astrology, and in 1585 Pope Sixtus V condemned it. At the same time, the work of Kepler and others undermined astrology’s tenets. Its popularity and longevity are, of course, irrelevant to the truth of astrology in any of its forms.

Astrology was also adopted in ancient Persia and throughout the Arab world where it was taken up by Muslims whose work found its way to Europe during the Renaissance.*

The ancient Chinese adopted an elaborate and intricate system of astrology that is intimately connected with various metaphysical notions such as yin and yang and wu xing. Many Westerners are familiar with the cycle of the twelve Zodiac animal signs in Chinese astrology, e.g., the year of the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, etc.

The most popular form of traditional Western astrology is sun sign astrology, the kind found in the horoscopes of many daily newspapers. A horoscope is an astrological forecast. The term is also used to describe a map of the zodiac at the time of one’s birth. The zodiac is divided into twelve zones of the sky, each named after the constellation that originally fell within its zone (Taurus, Leo, etc.). The apparent paths of the Sun, the Moon, and the major planets all fall within the zodiac. Because of the precession of the equinoxes, the equinox and solstice points have each moved westward about 30 degrees in the last 2,000 years. Thus, the zodiacal constellations named in ancient times no longer correspond to the segments of the zodiac represented by their signs. In short, had you been born at the same time on the same day of the year 2,000 years ago, you would have been born under a different sign.

In fact, there should be 13 signs, not 12.

Precession of the equinox is caused by the fact that the axis of the Earth's rotation (which causes day and night) and the axis of the Earth's revolution around the Sun (which marks the passage of each year) are not parallel. They are 23 1/2 degrees away from lining up; that is, the Earth's axis of rotation is tilted. This tilt also causes our seasons, a fact that Ptolemy did understand but that many people do not understand even today. Ptolemy understood that the rotation axis of the Earth was slowly precessing, or moving in a circle, with an angular radius of 23 1/2 degrees with a period of around 26,000 years. He deduced this from comparisons of data taken by the ancient Sumerians 2,000 years before his time. He did not understand what was pushing the precession, but he did understand the motion. We now realize that the Sun is rotating with a period of around 30 days and that this causes the Sun to bulge at the equator, which causes a torque to be exerted on the top like motion of the Earth's day and night cycle. There is also a small 18.6-year variation caused by the Moon's orbit around the Earth, and the Moon also has a small effect on precession; however, the Sun's equatorial bulge is the main cause of the precession of the equinox, which is why your sign listed in the newspaper, by Sidney Omar for instance, in most cases is removed by one sign from the modern, actual position of the Sun at your birth.

The modern signs as listed here are further complicated when their boundaries are those of the current constellations. A neater way of dividing the signs would be to divide the ecliptic into 30-degree slices, as Ptolemy did, but to keep the slices centered on the star patterns. This would make the time interval for the signs more nearly 30 days each and eliminate the [13th] sign of Ophiuchus [off ee oo' kus], but your modern sign would still differ by one sign from the tradition designations.*

tropical and sidereal astrology

Traditional Western astrology may be divided into tropical and sidereal. (Astrologers in non-Western traditions use different systems.) The tropical, or solar, year is measured relative to the Sun and is the time between successive vernal equinoxes (365 days, 5 hr, 48 min, 46 sec of mean solar time). The sidereal year is the time required for the Earth to complete an orbit of the Sun relative to the stars (365 days, 6 hr, 9 min, 9.5 sec of mean solar time). The sidereal year is longer than the tropical year because of the precession of the equinoxes, i.e., the slow westward shift of the equinoctial points along the plane of the ecliptic at a rate of 50.27 seconds of arc per year, resulting from precession of the Earth’s axis of rotation.

Sidereal astrology uses the actual constellation in which the Sun is located at the moment of birth as its basis; tropical astrology uses a 30-degree sector of the zodiac as its basis. Sidereal astrology is used by a minority of astrologers and bases its readings on the constellations near the Sun at the time of birth.

Tropical astrology is the most popular form and it assigns its readings based on the time of the year, while generally ignoring the positions of the Sun and constellations relative to each other. It is based on the work of Ptolemy.

Ptolemy had available the resources of the vast library at Alexandria ... and produced two major text books which were to become the mainstay of astronomical and astrological thinking for the next 1500 years. The astrological text was known as the Tetrabiblos (also known as the Quadrapartitium, or Four Books), which summarized all the astrological work produced in the past by Mesopotamians and Greeks.... Among other things it helped establish the Tropical zodiac as the zodiac of the west on the basis of Ptolemy’s argument that the zodiac should be tied to the seasons rather than to the constellations.* [note: For easier reading of this source, if you're using Firefox or Explorer, either highlight the text to read it or select no style under View>(Page) Style.]

According to some astrologers, the data support the hypothesis that there is a causal connection between heavenly bodies and human events. Appeals are made to significant correlations between astrological signs and such things as athleticism. However, a statistically significant correlation between x and y is not a sufficient condition for reasonable belief in a causal connection, much less for the belief that x causes y. Correlation does not prove causality; nevertheless, correlations are extremely attractive to defenders of astrology. For example: “Among 3,458 soldiers, Jupiter is to be found 703 times, either rising or culminating when they were born. Chance predicts this should be 572. The odds here: one million to one” (Gauquelin 1975). Let’s assume that the statistical data show significant correlations between various planets rising, falling, and culminating, and various character traits. It would be more surprising if of all the billions and billions of celestial motions conceivable, there weren’t a great many that could be significantly correlated with dozens of events or individual personality traits.

Defenders of astrology are fond of noting that ‘the length of a woman’s menstrual cycle corresponds to the phases of the Moon’ and ‘the gravitational fields of the Sun and Moon are strong enough to cause the rising and falling of tides on Earth.’ If the Moon can affect the tides, then surely the Moon can affect a person. But what is the analog to the tides in a person? We are reminded that humans begin life in an amniotic sea and the human body is 70 percent water. If oysters open and close their shells in accordance with the tides, which flow in accordance with the electromagnetic and gravitational forces of the Sun and Moon, and humans are full of water, then isn’t it obvious that the Moon must influence humans as well? It may be obvious to some, but the evidence for these lunar effects is lacking.

Astrologers emphasize the importance of the positions of the Sun, Moon, planets, etc., at the time of birth. However, the birthing process isn’t instantaneous. There is no single moment that a person is born. The fact that some official somewhere writes down a time of birth is irrelevant. Do they pick the moment the water breaks? The moment the first dilation occurs? When the first hair or toenail peeks through? When the last toenail or hair passes the last millimeter of the vagina? When the umbilical cord is cut? When the first breath is taken? Or does birth occur at the moment a physician or nurse looks at a clock to note the time of birth?

Why are the initial conditions more important than all subsequent conditions for one’s personality and traits? Why is the moment of birth chosen as the significant moment rather than the moment of conception? Why aren’t other initial conditions such as one’s mother’s health, the delivery place conditions, forceps, bright lights, dim room, back seat of a car, etc., more important than whether Mars is ascending, descending, culminating, or fulminating? Why isn’t the planet Earth—the closest large object to us in our solar system--considered a major influence on who we are and what we become? Other than the Sun and the Moon and an occasional passing comet or asteroid, most planetary objects are so distant from us that any influences they might have on anything on our planet are likely to be wiped out by the influences of other things here on Earth.

No one would claim that in order to grasp the effect of the Moon on the tides or potatoes one must understand initial conditions of the Singularity before the Big Bang, or the positions of the stars and planets at the time the potato was harvested. If you want to know what tomorrow’s low tide will be you do not need to know where the Moon was when the first ocean or river was formed, or whether the ocean came first and then the Moon, or vice-versa. Initial conditions are less important than present conditions to understanding current effects on rivers and vegetables. If this is true for the tides and plants, why wouldn’t it be true for people?

Finally, astrology is probably the most widely practiced superstition and most popular Tooth Fairy science in the world today. Nevertheless, there are many who defend astrology by pointing out how accurate professional horoscopes are. Astrology “works,” it is said, but what does that mean? Basically, to say astrology works means that there are a lot of satisfied customers. There are a lot of satisfied customers because thanks to subjective validation, it is easy to shoehorn any event to fit a chart. To say astrology "works" does not mean that astrology is accurate in predicting human behavior or events to a degree significantly greater than mere chance. There are many satisfied customers who believe that their horoscope accurately describes them and that their astrologer has given them good advice. Such evidence does not prove astrology so much as it demonstrates the Forer effect and confirmation bias. Good astrologers give good advice, but that does not validate astrology. (They also make ambiguous claims like the oracle of Delphi who told Croesus before he attacked Persia: “If you cross the river, a great empire will be destroyed.” So armed, Croesus attacked, resulting in the destruction of his own empire.) There have been several studies that have shown that people will use selective thinking to make any chart they are given fit their preconceived notions about themselves and their charts. Many of the claims made about signs and personalities are vague and would fit many people under many different signs. Even professional astrologers, most of whom have nothing but disdain for sun sign astrology, can’t pick out a correct horoscope reading at better than a chance rate. Yet, astrology continues to maintain its popularity, despite the fact that there is scarcely a shred of scientific evidence in its favor. Even the former First Lady of the United States, Nancy Reagan, and her husband, Ronald, consulted an astrologer while he was the leader of the free world, demonstrating once again that astrologers have more influence than the stars do.

See also cosmobiology, magical thinking, Mars effect, rumpology, and How F.B.I. profiles are like horoscopes and Mass Media Bunk 7 astrology on the attack by R. T. Carroll.

postscript

astrology on the attack

Don't be surprised if we next hear from the astrologers demanding their "rightful" place in our universities. Ivan Kelly, foremost critic of astrology, sent me a copy of a troublesome article by astrologer Valerie Vaughan. "Debunking the Debunkers: Lessons to Be Learned," appeared in The Mountain Astrologer (Aug/Sept 1998 issue). Vaughan claims that astrologers are persecuted by establishment science. That is why astrologers can't get "access to research funding." And that is why astrologers fail to design "research protocols and run controlled tests in order to supply evidence for their art." Yet, in the same article Vaughan also claims that "astrology is not a science in the same sense as chemistry or physics....At most, it might be considered a social science."

Having firmly established that astrology is a social science, she then notes that "other social sciences, such as history, are not regularly attacked for their failure to apply scientific methodology in a laboratory setting." How true. Apparently, Ms. Vaughan does not understand that scientific methodologies can be and are regularly applied outside a lab in the social sciences. Some of these methodologies are based on logical principles such as Mill's Methods, which most astrologers do not seem to believe apply to their discipline. Some of these methodologies involve the use of statistical analysis of data. Vaughan understands the need for statistical analysis, but does not believe the usual scientific protocols apply to astrology. She says that scientists "insist on statistical analysis using random samples. But astrology cannot be proved or disproved using random samples because astrology is based on the premise that conditions are never random." Vaughn's logic is one I am not familiar with, but it sounds like non sequitur thinking to me.

A scientifically minded person might think Vaughan is wrong, considering  all the tests done using random samples of both subjects and astrological readings that have shown that astrology has no significant predictive value. But Vaughan has something else in mind. Those studies made the assumption

that any time is just as good as another to perform a test of astrology, but what if you're testing whether Pisces is less aggressive than Aries, and it so happens that Mars is rising during the test? Or suppose that preliminary research does reveal some validity in astrology, but in a later attempt at replicating the results, the Moon is void of course or Neptune is rising? Of course the results will be inconclusive!

This sounds like special pleading to me.

Further complicating matters, she says, is that when scientists (read "non-astrologers") test astrology they test parts of a person's chart. They ignore "the wholeness of a chart." Thus they commit the fallacy of composition (not her term): they assume "the whole equals the sum of its parts."

Astrology is incredibly complex; there are innumerable variables which must be considered before an astrologer can confidently make a statement. Practitioners of astrology know that no one factor, such as the Moon in Aquarius, can 'mean' anything in an absolute sense. That Aquarian Moon could be out-of-bounds, in a different house, opposed Saturn, or affected by any number of other conditions that modify its significance.

Vaughan has no awareness that it is this very complexity which marks astrology as a pseudoscience. Nothing could ever disprove it. Astrology can explain everything that happens, even contradictory events. There is always some ready ad hoc hypothesis to explain away any apparent refuting data.

However, what is disturbing about Vaughan's article is not her profound misunderstanding of science and scientific methodologies, but her call to astrologers to take to the road like the creationists did a few years ago and go on the attack. She is outraged that there are now textbooks in our schools that "contain entire units or learning activities aggressively aimed at teaching students to distinguish between science and 'pseudoscience.'" Worst of all, astrology is often used as the prototypical pseudoscience. This must be changed, she says. The debunkers of astrology are "intellectual control junkies who cannot bear the thought of a phenomenon they can't explain." The reason astrology is so badly treated is that mainstream academia is afraid of "losing control, power, and status. Because of their need for intellectual and financial control, they keep expanding their territory, applying the scientific approach to areas that are just plain none of their business."

According to Vaughan, "scientist debunkers [of astrology] have entered the realm of public school education, but what else would you expect with Pluto currently in Sagittarius?" (What was that about nothing can mean anything in an absolute sense?) That is not all. Vaughan invites us to go with her down the slippery slope to envision science "infiltrating" the humanities, religion, philosophy, ethics--where "even poetry and drama are at risk."

Vaughan's article is primarily a call to action. She urges astrologers not to sit back and be persecuted by Science. She advises that astrologers try to get astrology into the public school curriculum under the guise of "multicultural frameworks."

Since every culture in the world has developed a form of astrology, it is inherently diverse....A possible tactic is to approach the school authorities about admitting Western Astrology as a valid cultural tradition, and see what happens.

Another approach, she says, is to try to take advantage of "a new educational craze which emphasizes student participation."

The idea here is that, if students show an interest in a particular question (no matter how unrelated it is to the established curriculum), teachers are supposed to follow the direction of inquiry and incorporate it into the lesson. In other words, if students in an astronomy class show an interest in astrology, the new standards stipulate that the teacher shouldn't say that this is a topic students are not supposed to be learning. It will be interesting to see how this kind of situation is handled, because it is in direct confrontation with the standards that allow science teachers to debunk astrology under the guise of instruction in science history, 'critical thinking,' and scientific method.

Knowledgeable readers might shrug and laugh at Vaughan's notions and suppose that astrologers aren't going to get that close to any school curriculum. Think again. Astrologers have children and can belong to the P.T.A. Their kids can bring them to school for show-and-tell. Or, they could have credentials like Vaughan. She has a master's degree in Information Science and is the director of a science education library, where her duties include staying current with "guidelines and trends in science teaching, and to review the latest curriculum materials available." I wish I were kidding, but it gets worse. Astrologers now have their own college.

Kepler College was established in Seattle, Washington, in 1999 and has been granted the power to issue both bachelor's and master's degrees in astrological studies. Upon launching their website, the folks at Kepler announced:

Kepler College is the first institution of its kind. Kepler College serves those who are pursuing careers in astrology, as well as those who seek to develop or upgrade their skills and incorporate them into other professional practices. To enhance these experiences, and to further astrology as an academic discipline, we consider research and academic interaction with other colleges and universities to be major priorities....

As a Kepler College student you will acquire academic credits in a number of areas while you study one major theme --- astrology. You will earn credits in astronomy as you study the mathematics of the sky. You will earn credits in history as you explore astrology’s ancient past. You will earn credits in psychology as you probe the psyche of a chart and see it reflected in life. Throughout this process, you will learn about life.

Kepler College has held distance learning symposia and it is to be expected that it will engage in outreach programs, perhaps fulfilling Vaughan's dream of a grass roots infiltration of curricula in public schools.

See also communal reinforcement, confirmation bias, crystal power, cold reading, dream, fortune telling, graphology, I Ching, iridology, magical thinking, metoposcopy, Myers-Briggs, numerology, oracle, palmistry, personology, phrenology, physiognomy, psychic, reflexology, runes, scrying, subjective validation, tarot and How F.B.I. profiling is like palm reading.


reader comments

further reading

books and articles

Christopher, Milbourne. ESP, Seers & Psychics (Thomas Y. Crowell Co. 1970).

Culver, Roger B. and Philip A. Ianna. Astrology, True or False? : A Scientific Evaluation (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1988).

Dean, Geoffrey and Ivan Kelly. "Is Astrology Relevant to Consciousness and Psi? Journal of Consciousness Studies. Volume 10, No. 6-7, June-July 2003.

Dean, Geoffrey and Arthur Mather and Ivan W. Kelly, "Astrology," in The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal, ed. G. Stein (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1996).

Gauquelin, Michel. "Spheres of Influence," Psychology Today [Brit], No. 7, October 1975, pp. 22-27; reprinted in Philosophy of Science and the Occult (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990), 

Jerome, Lawrence E. Astrology Disproved (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1977).

Kelly, I. W. , G. A. Dean and D. H. Saklofske, "Astrology, A Critical Review," in Philosophy of Science and the Occult (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990), 2nd edition, editor Patrick Grim; pp. 51-81.

Kelly, I. W. "Modern Astrology: A Critique," Psychological Reports, 1997, 81, 1035-1066.

Kelly I. W. 1999. "'Debunking the Debunkers' - A Response to an Astrologer's Debunking of Skeptics," Skeptical Inquirer Nov/Dec.

Kelly, I. W.  "Why Astrology Doesn't Work," Psychological Reports, 1998, 82, 527-546.Critical comments on Valerie Vaughan's Re-bunking the Debunkers

Kelly, Ivan W. Critical comments on Valerie Vaughan's Re-bunking the Debunkers. 2000.

Martens, Ronny and Tim Trachet, (1998) Making Sense of Astrology (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1998). 

Randi, James. Flim-Flam! (Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books,1982), chapter 4.

Schick, Jr., Theodore and Lewis Vaughn, How to Think About Weird Things  3rd ed. (McGraw Hill 2001),

Zusne,  Leonard and Warren Jones. Anomalistic Psychology: A Study of Magical Thinking 2nd edition. (Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc. 1990).  

websites

History of Astrology

Astrology-and-Science.com

Proof of Astrology? by Ivan Kelly

Astrology is Bigotry by Bob Steiner

Astrological Things What is Your Sign, Really?

Phil Plait (The Bad Astronomer) on astrology

Eric Krieg's Astrology Page

The Astrotest - A tough match for astrologers by Rob Nanninga

Analysis of Astrology FAQ Page collected and edited by M.M. De Robertis

The Real Romance in the Stars by Richard Dawkins

What's Your Sign? by Gary P. Posner

Astrologer Prudence Jones on astrology

Isaac Newton and Astrology (He was "convinced of the vanity & emptiness of the pretended science of Judicial astrology.")

Alan Leo "father of modern astrology"

news stories

Astrology holds sway over Sri Lanka

Forget the stars: the Sun shapes our destiny, according to Finnish study

Astrologers fail to predict proof they are wrong

According to a 2005 Gallup poll, 25% believe in astrology, a statistic that has remained steady for the past 15 years.

The flawed 2006 Baylor University "piety" poll found only about 13% have any faith in astrology.


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