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Posted by on Oct 31, 2013 in Pseudoscience, Psychology, Skepticism, Teaching | 13 comments

The Folly of Following Astrology

This post is part of a series of guest posts on GPS by the undergraduate and graduate students in my Science vs. Pseudoscience course. As part of their work for the course, each student had to demonstrate mastery of the skill of “Educating the Public about Pseudoscience.” To that end, each student has to prepare two 1,000ish word posts on a particular pseudoscience topic, as well as run a booth on-campus to help reach people physically about the topic.

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The Folly of Following Astrology  by Adam Braly

It never fails to make me feel incredulously small when I look up at the night sky. Like many before me, a naturalistic curiosity for all things astral often fills me with a sense of bewilderment and an unsullied yearning for veracity. Yet, as I tussle with my own empirical observations, there are those who would instead consult approaches inclined to conjecture. Perhaps the oldest construct to address the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything is that of astrology – the belief that the motion of the stars and planets are directly related to human events. Often credited with the invention of astrology, Babylonian priests were known to prophesize using the methods of astrology and by reading animal entrails. Their Greek neighbors to the northwest began to name the planets after their deities (names that are still in use today) and divine qualities were ascribed to the planets based on their previously wrought calamities of old. The  modern form of astrology was later crystallized by Claudius Ptolemy in his astrological bible, the Tetrabiblos.

Although belief in astrology has waxed and waned, in the past 100 years we find ourselves inundated by a significant number of individuals across the planet with rigid belief systems that incorporate astrology as a means of knowing. Several sinister and high-ranking Nazi officials alike were proponents of astrology. Written by personal astrologer to Heinrich Himmler (known as the architect for the Nazi “final solution”), Zodiac and Swastika is author Wilhelm Wulff’s memoir of WWII in which he holds that the Nazi fixation with astrology was an instrument of manipulation and domination. Such a protracted form of literature denotes a need for absolution as Wulff recounts being a prisoner facing execution if he failed to predict the death of Hitler. All the same, Churchill’s British government was believed to have employed astrologers to assess and counteract the predictions of Nazi astrologers. On the home front, a 1988 issue of Time magazine singled out Ronald and Nancy Reagan as regular clients of astrology. The notion that the leader of the free world (for nearly a decade) actively engaged in astrological readings is beyond frightening. A blanket search for astrology in the Amazon marketplace yields a massive inventory of nearly 26,000 items (scientific literature notwithstanding). A 2009 Harris poll reports that 26% of U.S. citizens actively hold beliefs in astrology, and a 20-year survey of college undergraduates revealed that 78% of students considered astrology to be “very” or “sort of” scientific. Even now, a disturbingly high number of daily newspapers are rife with the pseudoscientific divinations of horoscopes, even if their inclusion was designed to increase circulation.

It is very easy for me to understand the origins of astrology in a world ignorant to the laws of nature with a view of the universe untainted by light pollution for centuries. Oh, what I would give to reclaim that magnificent perspective. Even in our continuing infantile existence as a species, we’ve managed to complete the standard model of physics despite oppositions to logic. The movement toward a critical-thinking populous is a just cause and what should be an effortless stepping-stone appears to be gaining traction once again. As a natural-born scientist and skeptic, I’d like to acknowledge the pseudoscientific mechanisms of astrology. Scientists seek consistent knowledge about the natural world through empirical observation and experimentation; I would require a colossal sum of evidence to be convinced of astrology. Astrologers and proponents of astrology cannot explain how astrology works and any proposed explanations are inconsistent with our scientific comprehension of the natural laws of the universe. For example, the basic notion that the gravitational forces of planets affect human life does not hold under mathematical scrutiny and for this claim to be verifiable we would be required to alter our current scientific understanding of physics, chemistry, and biology. The act of charting astrology relies heavily on the planets themselves, claiming to accurately match planetary positions to all aspects of human personality. But what about all the planets we’ve discovered since its inception? Early astrologers were unable to consider such possibilities, having only named planets up to and including Saturn and were ignorant to a whole host of galaxies and planets beyond even our own solar system. Much like all mythologies, modern interpretations heavily vary from their original design. Early astrological signs are not even the same as they were because the earth wobbles on its axis.

When I consider the modern hang-up with astrology there are several characteristics that may confuse it’s scientific veracity for many individuals. The language used by astrologers is fairly scientific and branches from the genuine scientific discipline of astronomy, and was considered necessary to understand modern science for hundreds of years. With unacceptable levels of science education, is it any wonder that the lay audience relieves heavily on scientific rhetoric as a means for veridical evidence? Scientific study relies heavily on experimentation by testing theories and considering alternatives and opens itself to inspection through peer review by other scientists. Not surprisingly, astrologers will often go to great lengths to avoid scrutiny and very rarely publish empirical articles in scientific journals.  Despite a large body of research showing that astrology cannot make reliable predictions, avid supporters of astrology claim to have seen it work in action. The tendency for individuals to personally identify with ambiguous statements or descriptions of personality has long been described as the Barnum effect. Almost all horoscopes are vague descriptions that can easily apply to most individuals and astrological predictions necessitate opportunities in the future rather than specific instances that are currently happening – in this regard, that are nearly immune to falsifiability. As a curious species we are programmed to find meaning in all that we see and experience, often when it is illusory. We desire to feel an increased autonomy in our lives to protect us from the dangers of living. Simply put, astrology aims to mislead our quest for scientific accuracy.

As Carl Sagan put it “There are two ways to view the stars. As they really are and as we might wish them to be.”

  • Evelyn Stratmoen

    I also wonder if the use of astrology and horoscopes is a matter of confirmation bias as well as the Barnum effect. We seek to confirm things that we already know and believe, and astrology is just one tool to do that.

  • intuitiveacuity

    The fact that people still read horoscopes unironically is astounding to me. Do people really think that the same thematically related series of events occur in equally in segments of the population identified solely through date of birth, and no other metric? Think about the fact that there are only 12-13 signs of the Western zodiac – that would mean that, in order for this whole thing to be internally consistent – for any given day there are a total of 12-13 answers that can be provided if you ask how someones day went. Thats it. Irrespective of class, ration, regionality, etc. Passes the smell test as well as a sewage treatment plant.

  • psychodawn93

    I have to admit I read my horoscope from time to time, but just for the fun of it. I would like to think that most people that read their horoscopes are doing the same thing, but I know there are those out there who truly believe. How could they believe in something that is so obviously fake? That is a good question, but I think it has a simple answer. They want to. That is what it all boils down to, people believe in these kind of pseudosciences because they want to believe in something. They want to think they have a way of seeing into the future or knowing how things are going to turn out for them. Obviously there are more than 12 groupings of outcomes for the entire human race so our day is not going to coincide with 1/12th of the population just because we were born under the same Zodiac sign. Astrology is actually one of the few pseudosciences you can delve into for fun or entertainment without getting talked into spending a lot of money. I’m sure there are parts of astrology that try to get you to buy things, but those daily horoscopes are free, so indulge in a little pseudoscience every now and then just for a laugh!

  • RankingEffects

    Some people plan their day, or interpret it at least, on the basis of these stories. I wonder how many of these people are aware of the fact that their “sign” in one system of astrology may be different in another system? For instance, I’m Pisces in “tropical” astrology, but Aquarius in “sidereal” astrology. If I took this seriously, I would actually have to endorse some rationale for why one is correct and the other is not (or is less correct).

  • narges30

    I think people with low confidence,self esteem and education will be the most believer in astrology because they cannot think and predict about their decisions. And sometimes some people need some motivation to do or at least to start something, that is why they just depend on astrology and try to started their days by knowing any warning or advising from their best friend “astrology”.

  • Bethany Barnett

    I didn’t realize that the Nazis used astrology. That is a very interesting fact. To think that leaders of a nation use such non-logical methods of prediction is astounding to me.

  • ahuskey

    There appears to be an “ancient or traditional” appeal to authority among the astrology followers. It is a similar phenomenon seen with practioners of old medical remedies, religion, and various forms of belief and practice discussed in this series of pseudoscience. At some point in time, the ancient past somehow becomes sacred to us and we cherish the teachings thereof, as if the scientific and technological illiteracy provided the ancients with a stronger connection to the “truth” of the universe. I am not necessarily suggesting that they didn’t have some things right that recent innovations have possibly ruined for us. In terms of astrology, however, the mask has been ripped off and truth revealed by astronomy, yet the ignorance pervades, clinging to a notion that supposedly transcends actual evidence.

  • timharvey87

    Humans are meaning-seeking machines but astrology goes beyond this and suggests that humans are either the most important or least important things in the universe. For example, the entire orbit of a planet was designed to Jimmy whether he should take a ski vacation. Or the alternative is that humans are pawns to planets and completely lack free will so Jimmy’s decision to take the ski trip and die in a hot tub accident was destined to happen and he just doesn’t realize it. I did like the transition from Nazis to Ronald and Nancy Reagan.

  • IvyBrown

    Sagan said “Astrologers became employed only by the state. In many countries it
    became a capital offense for anybody but the official astrologer to read
    the portents of the skies. Why? Because a good way to overthrow a regime is to predict its downfall.” If you think about it self-fulfilling prophecy is a powerful thing. Predicting the demise of government only makes sense if it comes from within.

  • Dustin Belden

    I don’t think its a big stretch to understand why people believe in Astrology. Science is a difficult endeavor. It takes people years of formal education to master it. Pseudoscience like Astrology is more simple to understand, and after all, if the leader of the free world believes in it, like you stated, why can’t I? ;)

  • fghani

    I had not realized that even Nazi officials were into astrology. Perhaps those that cling on to Astrology require the notion that some sort of divine force out there is determining their future; it takes away any form of responsibility and fear of the unknown. They would have something to depend on rather than have uncertainty.

  • tinafriar

    I think we as humans seek to explain everything. There is comfort in knowing, even if that knowing is wrong. As we grasp for answers, it is easier to believe in something like astrology rather than work out the hard details of finding the truth. Science is hard to master. Hocus Pocus, not so much. As you said, we need meaning. I just wish more of us would be patient with finding that meaning instead of latching on to the first thing we can.

  • dandymandyl

    This is once again another example of how people try to rationalize and make sense of the world around them by any means necessary.

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