"Astrology is rubbish", but…

Over the past week or two I’ve seen a steady trickle of tweets from astronomers, science writers and journalists having a good laugh about astrology. Fair enough, perhaps, except that this all began with a story on NBC News (and video here), reporting on the comments of one Parke Kunkle, an astronomy instructor linked with the Minnesota Planetarium Society and Minnesota Community and Technical College (where, it appears from Rate My Professor, he goes down a storm with students), who provided a new calendar of zodiac signs and claimed we should be adding in a 13th sign, Ophiuchus.

Kunkle’s point was that because of precession, the Sun now appears in a different part of the ecliptic on any given day than it would have done “3,000 years ago when the study of astrology began”. Now, Kunkle admits that precession has been going on for some time (rather more than the ‘thousands’ of years he mentions) but what the article doesn’t make clear that it has also been known about and calculated for since at least the Greeks. So I couldn’t figure out what the news was; what the big deal could be.

The constellation Ophiucus from John Flamsteed's 'Atlas Coelestis'. Note that it overlaps with Scorpio.

It bugged me, though, that this was being used to jeer as astrologers, and it bugs me that it has gone viral, with the original story being recommended so far by over 40,000 readers. I am sure that the vast majority of people who’ve enojyed this story either think it’s a good example of astrologers being idiots, or they think they actually need to change which horoscope they read in the paper. Both are wrong. Frankly, we should question anyone who thinks this is going to shock serious astrologers.

There are a number of issues that need to be cleared up here. Firstly, people who just have a hunch that there might be something in astrology – who know their sun sign and read their newspaper horoscope – probably know equally little about astronomy and astrology. Secondly, anyone who thinks astrology is nothing more than horoscopes that cover roughtly a 12th of the population in one go is also very ill-informed. Thirdly, while I agree with the best skeptics that “astrology is rubbish”, this is because there is no evidence that celestial objects can affect our lives, events and emotions in the way that is claimed, not because practising astrologers don’t understand basic celestial mechanics and positional astronomy.

Yet more hilarity has been caused by the fact that astrologers have a petition requesting “fair representation for astrology in the media”. Now, the wording of this document is not particularly clear, but again science writers (most recently, see Martin Robbins’ Guardian blog post) have got hold of the wrong end of the stick.  I recommend reading the post by Deborah Houlding that is linked to the petition, which explains clearly why practising astrologers are not phazed by Kunkle’s ‘revelation’ and what it was that Brian Cox and Dara O’Briain recently said on the BBC that has particularly annoyed them. [NB Robbins has misrepresented the thrust of its content.]

The Astrological Association is not annoyed simply because Cox and O’Briain have said that “astrology is rubbish” but because it was said in the context of explaining the mechanics of the solar system. It was suggested that they did not understand the basics of planetary motion, and therefore astrology is rubbish. This is NOT why astrology is rubbish: many astrologers have an excellent understanding of positional astronomy and have professional pride in this knowledge, but they do still hold to an hypothesis that is, fairly, utter nonsense.

Astronomers, skeptics and fans of science are doing themselves a disservice by focusing on the wrong grounds for dismissing astrology. Astrologers who do know their astronomy can fairly cry foul and will, as a result, gain more respect from their followers or clients. And their accusers will simply sound jeery, sneery, and completely ignorant of what they’re arguing against. In addition they are showing themselves to be completely ignorant of their own history.

When science happens there is always a reason: astronomy developed because, broadly, it served three masters: navigation, timekeeping and astrology. These were, all three, supremely important in ensuring development of accurate positional astronomy, because all were things for which people were willing to pay.

Although the words astronomy and astrology were often used interchangeably, I think it can be helpful to think about astronomy as the means by which data was generated (observations taken, mathematics applied, models created and tables drawn up) and the others as uses made of that data. The need for all three applications drove astronomy. Good, accurate astronomy would ensure good, reliable and accurate time-telling and navigation, and the best possible basis for astrological interpretation to take place. There are clear historical examples of astrology rather than the others being the impetus behind particular instances of patronage of astronomers or mathematicians to undertake observations or produce tables. This was the case up until the late 17th century.

Thus is astrology intermingled with the history of astrology, and not just in individual cases like those of Tycho Brahe or Johannes Kepler. Martin Robbins’ post is seriously wrong on the history. He writes that ““astrology is a load of rubbish.” …[i]s a position that was first reached by Islamic scholars at least 650 years ago” and later adds that “was already being ridiculed in the Dark Ages“. The link (the same for both these quotes) is to a 1971 article in the Journal of the American Oriental Society by John W. Livingston, on a ‘Fourteenth-Century defense against astrological divination’. This article is about theological arguments against astrology as a legitimate means of predicting the future. This is not the same as showing that “astrology is rubbish”, but demonstration of a fear of real (astrological) knowledge getting in the wrong (non-clerical) hands. It also highlights the difference between judicial and natural astrology. The former includes casting horoscopes and making predictions about people and events, while the latter included being able to predict or understand the weather, the outcome of a seaonal crop and the health of an individual. To connect these to astronomical events and cycles has, I think, a logic that casting a horoscope does not and it’s not surprising that, while judicial astronomy was often criticised (by the church, by rulers and by philosophers), natural astrology lasted well into the 18th and, in popular discourse at least, 19th centuries.

I do not suggest that astronomers are required to engage deeply with modern practising astrologers but, while theory and practice has changed hugely since the 17th century, they should realise that their common heritage makes ignorance of precession deeply unlikely. They should stick to the issue of celestial ‘influence’ and step away from that of celestial mechanics.

84 thoughts on “"Astrology is rubbish", but…

  1. As usual, thanks, Rebekah! It is good to finally read something lucid about the subject. I was struck as Brazil’s most prominent national magazine brought a huge (and panfletary) article on Kunkle’s proposal and criticisms on this week’s issue – actually it made the front page of it. It amazes me how shallow texts that need to deal with the nature of Science (or non-science) tend to be in the press. And it amazes me even more that such kind of debate receives so much attention in the midia.

    • Thanks! Yes, it’s bizarre how this one has taken off. New media evidently encourages the spread of trivial stories like this, but not the fact-checking that would easily show that this issue about precession comes up again and again and is hardly a surprise to anyone who knows anything about astronomy or astrology. Perhaps the hugely widespread nature of this particular version will mean people recall it when it comes around again….

  2. Well I agree that astrology is rubbish because I don’t believe planets affect our destinies. However I also think it is rubbish because of how Pluto was treated in the 20th century versus the moons of various planets and other large objects in the Kuiper belt. If Pluto is so important (as many astrologers say) then wasn’t that a problem for pre-1930 astrology? And if Pluto is so important then why isn’t Eris? If it’s distance (say an r^2 type “influence”) then shouldn’t nearer objects like large asteroids matter much more? (And perhaps even moons?) More significantly the way in which Pluto was adjusted for demonstrates the whole approach astrology takes, which clearly is rubbish. (Ditto for other objects not seen by the naked eye but discovered since the invention of the telescope)

    • I would not for a minute argue that astrologers are united and consistent in their interpretation of anything. I wonder if some argue that not knowing about Pluto before the 1930s explains the previous lack of demonstrable success of astrological predictions?! Presumably, though, astrological influence is not the same as gravity, so size and proximity of the object may not necessarily be relevant. Whatever: clearly nonsense.

      However, my point remains that this particular kind of attack on astrology is old hat and can be dealt with easily by astrologers. Those who use it do not cover themselves with glory!

      • Sorry – should have been clearer. I wasn’t disagreeing with your point. More just agreeing by example that there are plenty of places to attack astrology on its own terms.

      • Thanks for clarifying – sorry if my response didn’t quite take your point. And yes, makes a much more tricky point for astrologers to answer sensibly than the kind of examples I discussed.

    • To state Astrology is rubbish doesn’t mean anything. What should be questioned is the correlation of the planets and events on earth. In this case the sun and moon do effect life on earth. If the question of how pluto affects humans on earth, then your belief that it doesn’t is purely materialistic. Your view/belief about Astrology should be based on evidence. It should be mentioned that Pluto was discovered at the start of the atomic age, pluto rule’s the atomic age. The over riding factor in the advancement of astronomy was Astrology in the 17th century. Kepler was the scientist who drew the charts for astronomy. This happened because the King at the time was more interested in Astrology. To cut a long story short, Astrology did astronomy a favour. Astrology is not a belief system, at the end of the day, it’s results and data that matter.

  3. Extremely well said. When debunking something, first understand what the other side is saying, then set about addressing the flaws. If you get basic facts about the belief system or tenets wrong, your credibility with the people you would ideally want to reach, i.e. people who have started to wonder about the scientific basis of their profession / hobby / beliefs, suffers immensely. Instead, such errors play into the worst skeptic stereotypes.

  4. I think you’re making this far too forensic. The context of this latest fuss has absolutely nothing to do with what some Minnesota astronomer said about the precession of the equinox.

    The BBC held a series of introductory programmes for aspiring amateur astronomers about a month ago. Dara O’Briain was one of two celebrity participants. At one point O’Briain, a comic, raised an unscripted objection to astrology, and then said that astrology is bullshit. Cox, who has deliberately angered astrologers in the past, quipped that “in the interests of balance”, referring to BBC editorial policy, astrology was a load of rubbish. The subject was not mentioned again.

    Astrologers angrily demanded an apology, but nobody cares, and Cox and O’Briain have bluntly derided the astrologers’ pathetic online petition.

    Astrology is a load of toss, and Cox and O’Briain are exposing it to contempt, not analysis.

    • Thanks for you comment Tony, but I don’t think you’ve quite understood what I said about the Astrological Association’s objections. Fine, maybe nobody cares, but the post Houlding linked above says that she was happy to make light of Cox’s throw-away “astrology is rubbish” in Wonders of the Solar System, but had a specific objection to the comment in Stargazing Live because it was made after an explanation of planetary motion, something she understands well enough.

      Cox and O’Briain are welcome to expose astrology to contempt, but why not focus on the most contemptible part? When I mentioned this topic on Twitter someone said to me something along the lines of “homeopathists know that water is H2O but homeopathy is still dangerous nonsense”. But my point is, we do not find it useful to go around focusing on their knowledge or otherwise of molecular chemistry, what we need to challenge is the *hypothesis* that the molecular structure of water has ‘memory’.

      • Thanks for putting this brouhaha in some kind of context Rebekah.

        I hesitate to give astrologers yet more attention but I think that the particular criticism of Cox and O’Briain is not warranted. I saw the Stargazing program and, to my mind, there was no explicit or implicit criticism of astrologers’ ability to tell where the planets and stars are. I interpreted the comment simply as meaning that the locations of the planets are no determinant of the fates of people on Earth and that it is ridiculous to claim as much.

        Perhaps, in an ideal world, Cox and O’Briain would have explicitly repeated the statement that there is no good evidence for the ‘judicial’ interpretation of astrology but off the cuff is off the cuff.

        If astrologers want balance from the BBC or the respect of the scientific community, let them bring their evidence to the table and we can discuss it. However, given past experience with homeopaths, I’m afraid my remaining life is too short to spend much more of it on empty hypotheses.

      • Thanks for your comments Stephen. I didn’t see the Stargazing moment myself, but I was trying to explain that the Astrological Association’s point was a bit more subtle than most have portrayed it, and that their reaction to this particular instance was coloured by things like the Parke Kunkle story. Understanding where other people are coming from is usually a good idea. I think that in an ideal world Cox and O’Briain would have said nothing about astrology in the context of a programme about astronomy, unless (possibly) responding to a viewer’s question.

        I agree that astrologers have nothing to say that should bring them more airtime from the BBC, or to make scientists and the general public engage with them futher. But science communicators need to be clever if they are going to get involved in these debates (and no one says they have to get involved at all), making sure they know what they are talking about!

  5. Excellent post, Rebekah.

    It’s very refreshing to read someone who actually understands not only what is, but what isn’t, scientific, and why.

    Roll on a Guardian column, that’s what I say!

  6. Well said Becky. You might actually motivate me to finally write my (series of) post(s) on the role that astrology played as a motivating force in the history of astronomy.

    Actually it was the lady astronomer from Minnesota who on this occasion was displaying her ignorance as she obviously doesn’t know the difference between astrological star signs, which are 30° divisions of the ecliptic measured from the equinox point, and astronomical constellations.

    • Thanks – and please do write your astrology/history of astronomy posts!

      Parke Kunkle actually seems to be a man (check the video), but yes he seems not to have any knowledge of the 30 degree divisions of the zodiac. A 19th-century astronomer would not have made that mistake: Kunkle should go and have a look at a few orreries, globes and armillary spheres!

  7. Hi Rebekah

    Thanks for this informative piece. One of the finer points that gets missed by those who don’t understand the history of astrology and astronomy is the significance of astrology being divided into ‘natural’ or ‘judicial’ branches. As you say, this basically means that anything which might be objectively observed by the collective – such as weather patterns or seasonal influences, or even temperamental influences of the nativity, falls under the umbrella of ‘natural astrology’ whereas individual enquiries on what might be the specific outcome of an event, or enquiries on what ought to be done, are reliant on the personal judgement (or attunement) of the astrologer involved. This is where the issue of fate and predestination gets very messy in theological terms; hence the historical sensitivities of the Church towards judicial astrology and the complications of knowing where a particular use of astrology falls on the ‘natural’ or ‘judicial’ side of it.

    Nowadays many aspects of natural astrology are claimed by science, as if they no longer have any relevance to the subject of astrology. Which of course they do. Astrology is essentially about the analysis of a quality of time (‘temperament’) and how things which become part of the expression of any moment will react against future qualities of time. It’s interesting that just over a year ago a scientific study from Vanderbilt University published its findings that human personality and prevalence towards disease were dramatically proven to have links to the season of birth – but the study leader, Douglas McMahon, summarized the study by saying “It’s important to emphasize that, even though this sounds a bit like astrology, it is not: it’s seasonal biology!”.

    Actually that is exactly like astrology, and it’s exactly what the zodiac is used for, although astrologers use it more extensively than that because we also consider the two thousand year old astrological study of how these temperaments work out in psychology, predictable behavior patterns, and political and geological changes too!

    I can see that you fall down against the argument of astrology having any value. Fair enough; I don’t personally think the subject needs to be believed in to have a value. But I am interested in your comment “I do not suggest that astronomers are required to engage deeply with modern practising astrologers”. On the surface of things the thought would probably sound ridiculous, but it’s not so long ago that a conference was held in London, which brought together a mix of academics and practicing astrologers, to allow them to dialogue with each other on the use of astrology in the history of science. The enjoyment and productive fruits of that conference can be seen in a summary comment by Daryn Lehoux, published in The Classical Review (vol.58, no.1, p.289). Here he is speaking in regard to the unnecessary put-downs of astrology in Roger Beck’s Brief History of Ancient Astrology:

    “Unfortunately, the condescension to his sources renders Beck’s book utterly inappropriate for the very audience for which it was written. Indeed, in his condescension, B. unwittingly alienates half his potential readership: modern readers with an interest in astrology itself. Scholars tend to ignore it, but there is a very lively community of interest in astrology, and many of these people are interested in its history. One of the best conferences I have had the pleasure of attending recently was a workshop organised by Charles Burnett and Dorian Greenbaum at the Warburg Institute. Half of the presenters were historians of astrology of the academic stripe, the other half practising astrologers who worked on the history of their own discipline. The astrologers were not only very knowledgeable about their history, but they also had incredible command of many of the very fine details of astrological practice that the academics tended to miss. Like B., I may not believe what they believe, but that is no reason not to speak to them. Indeed, as became apparent at the Warburg, some of them have plenty to teach us. “

    The sharing of informed perspective is always a good thing in my opinion, although of course, it depends upon everyone being genuinely open to each other’s point of view, for at least as long as the discussion take place.

    I would also like to see more of your work reach the press.


    • Thanks for commenting Deb – very informative and, I think, fair. I know Daryn and would certainly like to read more of his work. I think the link with seasonal biology is also very interesting, although I suspect most would interpret this as astrologers simply leaping to claim some real scientific results as backing. I suspect, in fact I know, that historians of science and astrologers have plenty to say to each other – scientists and astrologers perhaps less so!

      • Haha, what are you talking about? I really like that you read that quote from my blog, attributed to Haldane. It the context of this thread it doesn’t really support or rebuke what I just said. That astrology is pure nonsense.

        I’m really glad that astrology doesn’t get funding, as investing in systems of understanding, interpreting and organizing knowledge about reality and human existence, based on the relative positions and movement of various real and construed celestial bodies is outdated, and lasts only as a symbol of ancient misunderstanding.

        Just put it in the bin labelled “pseudo-science” along with intelligent design, hypnosis, crystal healing and phrenology.

    • By the way, science does not need to be saved. It is not under threat. It gets millions of pounds of funding every year in the UK alone and most people clamour for its outputs and love them to bits and bytes. Some of them even fancy geeks. You are paranoid and reacting as if astrologers are suicide bombers out to get you. Wake up, calm down, and realise that scientists have the BIG £££ and $$$ and €€€, the BBC airtime, the world-renowned universities, the blogs, the Twitters, the celebrity comedians, and most importantly the really cool spaceships.

  8. Certainty requires perfect knowledge.

    A scientist cannot be so certain that no doubt remains.

    Scientists are neither gods nor judges, nor is it their remit to dictate programming at the BBC.

    Unless they want all the BBC’s funding to come solely from the scientists’ pockets….

  9. Tell me sir, does the hour hand of your clock affect the events in your life?
    So much do the planets affect our lives. The sun, the moon, and astral bodies are simply a means to measure time.

    “All beings arise in time,
    Time continually consumes them all,
    Time is the Lord who possesses the vajra,
    Whose nature is that of day and night.”

  10. Thank you for this article, Rebekah. I’m an astrologer-historian myself, and looking at the recent flaps with Brian Cox and Parke Kunkle, I’m positively cringing. It’s fine not to believe astrology works.

    But whether one is going to discuss astrology, comparative religion, car maintenance, or ballroom dancing, it does behoove one to have a working knowledge of the subject to hand. Sadly, we’ve not been seeing that from – the at least loudest – members of the scientific community. That they’ve tried to cover it up by passing off wild untruths as part of the historical record is more than a little worrying.

    ‘This upsets my worldview, so I’m not going to look at it, and any attack I make on it, no matter how false said attack might be is fine, because it serves a greater purpose – or at least it makes me feel better’?

    No. Definitely not. Journalists have been as bad, maybe worse. What happened to good old fact-checking?

    Again, I thank you for a level-headed post.

  11. Chanah See’s utterly tone deaf response above underlines why these charlatans and self-deluding chart fiddlers should be derided constantly and without mercy. Doing them the favor of taking their tripe seriously even to debunk it only inflates their sense of importance.

    • @Tony – I don’t really care what astrologers make of my post: it is aimed at those who are interested in explaining science to a wider public. I have focused on why the current crop of criticsm are inadequate. You may think that taking time to understand the point of view of the Astrological Association bolsters them, but surely astrologers gain more respect from possible followers if they are able to deal convincingly with the kind of attack associated with Parke Kunkle. You need better attacks.

      Likewise, terms like charlatan and fiddler do not deal adequately with many/most of the astrologers represented by the A. Association. It does not describe people with a sincere belief (even if they are deluded) who make little money from their work, but WORSE it does not help explain to those otherwise unsure where the problem with claims about astrology lie.

      Imagine you are talking to a young person who is not even sure what the difference between astronomy and astrology are. Ridicule may encourage some of them to join the skeptic band, although they won’t really understand the position they’ve adopted. It will put others off. Either way, no one has learnt anything about the nature of science todsy, or how to discern it from non-science. That’s sad: these are important lessons.

  12. Tony, please do tell when it’s acceptable to lie about history in order to advance one’s own agenda. Only when discussing astrology? Or are there other subjects that fall into the same category? Why is it okay?

    Because I don’t understand that position.

  13. I’ll leave it there, Rebekah, because it’s evident that you intend to feed these people’s sense of importance by saying we ought to engage with them. I cannot accept that we should waste our time in that way.

    • Tony! It’s NOT evident because it’s not what I’ve written and certainly not what I intend. Where do I say that we should engage with astrologers? Please, let me know and I will correct it. However, I think that when you look over this post again (or, perhaps, for the first time?) you will see that I say the opposite.

      I also state that I agree that astrology is rubbish, and I state that I am on the side of the skeptics. There is nothing here that you should object to. I am suggesting alternative/additional tools for a skeptic’s arsenal that I believe will be more effective and meaningful. Not, perhaps, against committed astrologers but in engaging with the general public.

      Engaging just a little with history of astronomy (and, therefore, inevitably with history of astrology) does not require engaging with astrologers, but it will allow people to (shock, horror!) know what they’re talking about.

  14. Tony, please also do tell when it is acceptable to treat any other human being with the level of derision and disrespect in the ways we are seeing? Let alone for something as innocuous as astrology?! It is one thing to jibe and tease, it is another to deliver opinions about people you do not even know, who practise something you know nothing about, in such reviling tones.

    We have been through all this for the last 20-odd years in trying to incorporate a necessity for all human beings, irrespective of their creed, colour, gender, sexual orientation, beliefs etc as having validity and that being treated with respect needs to be a given. Astrologers are not doing any harm, indeed I am one of many who think there is much good that astrology can offer. The bigotry that Tony and others express is deeply worrying, although not surprising, given that eminent astrologers such as Dr Liz Greene Ph. D and Dr Glen Perry Ph. D have been talking for ages about the change of ‘mood’ that will occur when Uranus finally settles into Aries’s section of the ecliptic (soon) and that political correctness will be… challenged. Because Aries is about the individual and self identity, and is ruled by Mars (the principle of war), social unrest has been discussed as one expression of this planetary change, as well as the usual kind of war. Of course we have been seeing riots across the planet in no uncertain terms and it is likely to get worse. But astrology does not distinguish between war, as in bombing and shooting each other, and expression of any other kind of struggle between principles, be it beliefs or whatever, so here we have a battle between what is rational and what is not and what counts to whom, and whose beliefs are ‘right’. Astrology is a language of symbolism that recognises the connection, energetically and psychologically, of many things; CG Jung, the founder of modern psychology understood this. And this is also why astrology is so difficult to legitimise through double-blind experiments etc, because it appreciates, and therefore links, underlying energies that so many people are completely unconscious of and consequently express in a range of ways that are often reactionary and seemingly unconnected, although not so according to the symbolism which is not muddied.

    By all means let’s make adjustments to political correctness, which many agree can be overly limiting, but let’s also be very careful of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Not that I expect my post will change anyone’s mind, but please, pause and think – it is time for us all to take great care with how we express the stirring energy and anger within us, which will be greater for some than others (depending on the placements in your chart…), as much harm can be done if our motives are not examined and given due consideration and balance before we act. In other words, please be rational!

    Finally Rebekah, because of your stance I would lay money that you have Libra strongly placed in your chart, along with Mercury – that is not to say your Sun is in Libra necessarily, but that it will be prominently represented as you are displaying its principles beautifully. Thank you (Libra fan…).

    • Hi Feebee – Thanks for commenting, but I don’t think you’ve really got what I’m trying to say either. I’m of the view that the claims made by astrologers are not valid and I want science communicators and others to be able to make this point very clear to the public.

      As I’ve said this, I do slightly resent your making suggestions about my personality and chart. In a similar way, as an atheist, I do not want believers to try to press their beliefs on me or to tell me that I’m either loved by God or that I’m damned. I have no idea if I have Libra in my chart, and I’m not about to give you my date of birth so that you can tell me!

  15. What Exactly is Accomplished by Asserting “Astrology is Rubbish”?…

    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…

  16. Hello Rebekah,

    I do believe I understand your point – it does not seem complicated and I do thank you for being a voice of reason in this argument by the way – whatever your stance. I think you are saying that if scientists want to assert their authority and make their objections against astrology stick, then they need to do so using correct and applicable facts and tenets in order to make “better attacks” so they can win the argument for once and for all and the public can understand why [they think] astrology is rubbish. This is the accepted, professional, mature and reasonable way to dismiss false theories, and that is the process astrologers are asserting a right to when the subject is continually misrepresented, especially when we experience astrology as true. Apart from the philosophical debate around what is true and false, obviously there are scientists, and tens of thousands of others, who don’t see a need to do as you suggest simply because what is accepted about the workings of the Universe at this moment seems to be in conflict with astrology’s tenets and therefore there isn’t a need to take it seriously and disprove it using science’s own constructs for testing hypotheses. It’s rather arrogant but highlights the problem that popularising astrology has brought to the field. I cannot help notice that Cox and O’Briain are now attempting to popularise science and apparently made a rather unscientific programme in the process (I didn’t see it).

    I agree with you that Cox and O’Briain would do better sticking to astronomy on astronomy programmes instead of opening a can of worms and losing their credibility – but it appears there was some intention so it is not OK to then insist that astrologers get back in their box and be ridiculed without response! It seems that critics (who I do not think qualify as skeptics in the sense you define on your home page) don’t care if they are ill-informed and hypocritical – they still display an entitlement to ridicule without being held to account – this has been said about Richard Dawkins too but is largely ignored. It all seems to have a whiff of the fairytale of the Emperor With No Clothes.

    It also seems a bit like someone saying literature is rubbish because they’ve read those Mills and Boon novels and they’re really trashy which means that Shakespeare and Dickens are trashy too because they’re books and so they’re not going to read them because they know books are rubbish. There is a very big problem with this kind of “knowing” in my view.

    My point before was that this very argument is supporting astrology for the reasons I’ve given, even if that is not clear, because it is necessary to appreciate the workings of astrology to see it. It is also necessary to have a working knowledge of psychological theory in my view, although I admit that psychological astrology is the area I’m particularly interested in so I lean in that direction. Although I have no need to press my beliefs (although I would not describe astrology as a belief system) on anyone it will be necessary to discuss astrology in depth eventually if the matter is to be resolved, so someone is going to have to grin and bear it!

    It seems another fool’s paradise to behave as though astrologers, or homeopaths etc are not acutely aware of the views of the masses and do not understand or consider the issues behind the objections – many of us had them in the first place! Even as I began studying astrology seriously I found it necessary to ‘suspend my disbelief’ as my understanding and perception of the world was challenged and I learned this new language, but I have yet to regret it, even though some issues seem irresolvable. If scientists decide to demonstrate why ‘astrology is rubbish’ they have their work cut out in my view, as the language requires a particular mindset in order to be understood and applied properly. So disproving astrology irrefutably might be rather more difficult than those who do not know its language realise and that is why I wonder if this can play out as anticipated by its critics. Of course astrology has it’s share of inept, poorly trained, and less than ethical, practitioners as do other fields but it also has it’s share of ethical, talented individuals, and academics with degrees and PhDs, so I’m not sure Clark is right in saying above “there are plenty of places to attack astrology on its own terms”. Yes, there are bits of it that are trashy, but that is the Mills and Boon end, not the totality and can be dealt with accordingly.

    Perhaps the scientists can get around all these problems but it is my perception that astrology uses left-brained activity for the astronomy and chart casting and right-brained activity for interpretation etc, which is why the science-art description is sometimes used. Doing this in practice is not so easy. Scientists, and much of Western culture, is predominantly left-brain oriented but I think there will still be the necessity to evaluate and process astrology accurately in order to refute it, and the empirical evidence, sufficiently well in order to make this proof unquestionable. I am not sure how or if that can work, which is possibly why it has yet to be done.

    Having said that, people such as Dr Manjir Samanta-Laughton, Lynn McTaggart and Dr Gary Schwartz and others have already published work using modern scientific theories to suggest evidence for the truth in psychic phenomena, homeopathy and energy healing – other areas that a majority of scientists and the general public class as ‘rubbish’. It may be possible their ideas have application to the mechanism of astrology also, I really don’t know. But if the proposals put forward by these people are correct about a field of energy, which exists throughout the Universe and therefore surrounds us, to which we may be receptive, connected, and even communicating through, then it does not seem such a large leap that we are involved with the energy between the planets as they orbit and interfere with each other’s paths, which has nothing to do with gravity! (Astrologers know this about gravity BTW). It could also go to explaining Jung’s theory on the Collective Unconscious and sychronicity, synchronicity being the take of the Centre for Psychological Astrology’s syllabus in trying to understand the mechanism behind astrology. Worse still (!), it could explain what/who God is! I rather think this is Hazel Courteney’s idea in her recently published book ‘Countdown to Coherence’ (I’ve yet to read). The irony is almost too much that science could eventually prove what it describes as rubbish, but the potential for healing is infinite.

    As for your chart/birth data Rebekah, astrologers make quips like this a lot and my intention was to inject a little levity at the end of my post in the face of all this seriousness, so in no way was I intending to be forward. Nevertheless I am now confused as to how you arrived in the skeptic’s camp if you don’t know your chart. This highlights the problem for astrology within our culture as mentioned above. Let me be clear – it is not that I think you or anyone else ought to engage with astrology or that it needs more promotion or clients – I wholly support anyone’s right to ignore anything they don’t want to engage with but then that would be nearer indifference than holding the opinion astrology is not valid irrespective of knowledge. For instance, when Chinese medicine came into the public eye in the UK my knee-jerk reaction was one of disbelief – that needles or animal parts or a bunch of herbs and sticks could cure anything?! At that point I was a skeptic bordering on a critic. Then I got to know a Chinese person and some others who’d tried it and found it useful. Eventually I realised I had to adjust my view. I still do not want to go to a Chinese doctor (although I’ve tried acupuncture) and I’m not interested in how it works but that is with a reasonable idea of what it is and accepting some people find it useful – ergo: it has validity. So I am now in the ‘disinterested’ group and willing to live and let live rather than lacking knowledge and becoming a campaigner who demands Chinese medicine provide evidence to satisfy Western doctors that it works because my understanding of our body chemistry and healing has been challenged.

    Please understand though, I certainly had not wanted, or ever imagined you would give me your date of birth! In fact I would probably refuse if you asked. So apologies, please don’t take offence.

    • I think that my previous reply to you was perhaps unfair in that it was directed to several commenters, both here and on the Guardian post. There are people on both sides who seem to have read what they expected or hoped to read rather than what I actually wrote. But there – I perhaps reacted myself to your comment in the light of the others that I’ve read. Apologies for that, but it’s been a rather exhausting few days on this topic!

      I see that the quip about charts was intended light-heartedly, but again it is an example of something that people may, in some circumstances, find problematic. I am not sure, though, about your comment regarding how I found my way to the skeptic camp without knowing my chart. I am acting on the lack of evidence from elsewhere – or sufficient evidence that there are well-understood psychological reasons why individuals feel astrology, alternative medicine etc. works – and I don’t feel the need to apply it in my own case. I don’t think it is necessary to try everything personally before deciding it works or doesn’t work. The reason science has had the successes it has had is because scientists trust the work of those around them or who came before them. This can cause problems, but has generally been extremely effective and there really is no alternative.

  17. This post, and the follow-up post on Martin Robbins’ The Lay Scientist blog have stirred up some interesting reactions and discussions, which deserve a post of their own. I think I will wait until the dust has settled a little further before attempting this, but in the mean time please have a look at some of these other blogged responses:

    PZ Myers totally failed to understand (or, rather, failed to represent fairly) the point I was making.

    Darin Hayton provided some excellent background and commentary with a discussion of 20th-century commentary by scientists on astrology, asking “What exactly is accomplished by asserting “Astrology is rubbish”?”.

    Rebecca Pohancenik considers what this episode has to say about the role of history of science in science communication (NB see the comments from Alice and Rebecca at the end: we have a battlefield, but it is not history of science vs science, and certainly not historians vs science communicators).

    Billy Gotta-Job responded with a blog about Astrology and Ridicule, considering astrology, as something that is neither science nor faith, and the uselessness of rubbishing.

    Jin-Shei responded to my posts with one on Believers of all kinds, outlining the reality of situations where personal skepticism conflicts with the worldview of people around you. Attack is not always the appropriate mode.

    Finally, Jon Simons let me know about a post he wrote a few months ago, which asks What are we scientists trying to achieve in our interactions with the media, provoked by his concern that over-zealous attacks on the media by some in the skeptic camp may be counter-productive. Simons concludes that “a constructive rather than antagonistic approach may be more fruitful”.

  18. I’ve enjoyed your posts here and at The Lay Scientist.

    Thanks for the kind words and the link to my post. I apologize that I did not see your Guardian piece before I finished my post, which would have benefitted from thinking about the points you raise there. You certainly offered a more constructive suggestion. Unfortunately, as you note, it seems to have been misunderstood, misread, misrepresented, or simply ignored. Alas.

    • Thanks Darin. I think things are not quite so bleak as you suggest. Those who comment on posts in the Guardian are not, I suspect, particularly representative of those who read them. I am trusting that many have read and taken on board what I was trying to say. Likewise, I found I had much support on Twitter and in the positive posts (all but Myers) listed in my comment above.

      [Incidentally, another post to add to this, from an astrologer who didn’t like my suggestion that “astrology as a scientific hypothesis has been tested and found wanting: An open letter to Dr Rebekah Higgitt.]

      • Fascinating open letter.

        One thing on it called my attention:

        “[…]And then there is this:

        On December 6, 2010 Science Daily reports on a study published in the journal Natural Neuroscience that “The season in which babies are born can have a dramatic and persistent effect on how their biological clocks function.”

        The experiment provides the first evidence for seasonal imprinting of biological clocks in mammals and was conducted by Professor of Biological Sciences Douglas McMahon, graduate student Chris Ciarleglio, post-doctoral fellow Karen Gamble and two undergraduate students at Vanderbilt University.

        While not a study on astrology itself, it comes dangerously close to suggesting that the tropical zodiac, the zodiac based on the position of the Sun as it travels thru the seasons, actually has something behind it.”

        It is very easy to test if it is the influence of the seasons themselves or the stars and planets. Check what happens with people who have the same star sign but were born on the Southern hemisphere, where seasons will be out of phase.

        Just a thought.

      • Thanks for this Beto. I didn’t look very closely at the various data and experiments cited, but they didn’t look terribly convincing. As you say, conflating astrology with seasonal effects is pointless. I also noted that they referred to a 1985 paper, which is usually cited as clear evidence against astrology, and Jung, who is certainly not a unifying figure for astrologers.

  19. Feebee: “Tony, please also do tell when it is acceptable to treat any other human being with the level of derision and disrespect in the ways we are seeing?”

    Not a human being, no. Ideas, yes. Bad ideas, emphatically so. We have a moral obligation to deride crap that is presented as if it merited our attention.

    • Tony – you used the words “charlatans and self-deluding chart fiddlers”, which I take as personal abuse, being words directed at persons, and not derision of bad ideas. If you stuck to the latter, you would be doing exactly what I suggested in my post(s).

      I take it, given your lack of comment on the previous points addressed to you, that you agree that it is never acceptable to twist history to advance your agenda, and that my post did not feed the “sense of importance” of astrologers by encouraging “engagement” with them. Jolly good.

  20. Rebekah, I don’t think this discussion can go anywhere good. You yourself have said astrology is trash, so it follows that those who follow it fall into one of two camps: deluded or dishonest. You will note that I do not assign anyone to either camp, though I do correctly remark that these astrology apologists are remarkably persistent in their search for attention and validation *and you are feeding them*.

    This is what I find so remarkable about your argument. On one hand you deny asking that we engage with astrologers but on the other hand you criticise those who deride astrology because, it seems, we do not acknowledge of their skill at reading an ephemeris, operating Astrolog or being able to distinguish Aldebaran from Betelgeuse. Whatever next, should we not say that homeopathy is trash without also praising the practitioners’ skills in agitating vials of water and marketing the results?

    No. It’s enough to say it’s trash and not to be taken seriously. A mug’s game. Tripe.

    • As you say, Tony, I don’t think that I’m going to be able to persuade you to understand what I’ve written but, since it’s my post, I will not let you have the last, misconceived word.

      Again, I’ve explained that understanding just enough (and don’t worry, I’ve done as much engaging with this as necessary so that you don’t have to) to know which attacks are real – which ones will hit home, which ones are true, which ones broaden our understanding – can only aid science communication. Why continue to attack astrologers with not knowing astronomy when some of them have a reasonable amount of knowledge? Such attacks fall flat and – my point was – only serve to bolster the authority and “self-importance” of the astrologers who can successfully negate them.

      Would it help attacks on homeopathy if you accused them of offering patients neat alcohol and killing kittens on the side? Not really. Would it incline the curious, partly-interested or semi-neutral to feel sympathy for such maligned individuals? Probably.

      However, while my main purpose in writing was to provide some constructive criticism, I also have to ask: Why do you feel so threatened by astrologers?. Science has enormous dominance and respect in the modern world, astrology very little. Some astrologers may be dishonest, some may be deluded – but there are deluded and dishonest scientists. All of us are irrational and unscientific from time to time, or perhaps most of the time. Holding unscientific beliefs or acting unscientifically does not necessarily make someone anti-science. These are not either/or elements of people’s lives. From the very limited interaction I have had with astrologers as a result of writing these posts I would say that many seem to be perfectly honest, nice, intelligent people. Some astrologers may prey on the needy and extract money from them, but probably not that many and presumably with the strong disapproval of bodies like the Astrological Association. You may not like what they do but, in the scheme of things, they cause relatively little harm. Even if all astrologers disappeared tomorrow, people would continue to look for signs, correspondences, concordances and patterns where none exist.

      Finally, there are many worse beliefs, practices and people than astrology and astrologers. All the anger you have might be better directed at tackling misogyny, racism, homophobia or other forms of intolerance that have genuinely caused severe pain and even death.

  21. This is getting tedious, as I said it would. Brian Cox didn’t accuse any astrologer of anything bad, he just said it’s a load of crap. For some reason you’ve managed to conflate this with a fairly standard circular that many planetariums and astronomy departments publish every now and then to advertise the difference between astrology and astronomy (the fact that the latter studies real things is the clue) and to stimulate interest in astronomy. For some reason this example, given by a Minnesota astronomer, was widely picked up. But it has fuck all to do with what Cox said.

    In a generation of pop culture-savvy scientists Cox is a lead runner. He says It’s crap without elaborating. Patrick Moore has said the same many times in his long-running BBC programmes. If you think the BBC should spend more time on the subject, why not pitch it to them? And stop the handwaving, it’s embarrassing. Astrology is crap and it’s a good idea for scientists to say that.

    • If it’s tedious, please stop commenting on my blog.

      There were, if you’d followed my argument and the links, good reasons to put the Cox and Kunkle stories alongside each other. If planetariums regularly put out the fallacy that astrologers don’t understand precession, or that the dates of the zodiac signs have shifted then they should stop and find another way of demonstrating the difference between astronomy and astrology because THIS ISN’T IT! (clue: they’re wrong).

      I don’t actually have that much of a problem with Cox saying it’s crap, but in the (valid) context if the other stories and the petition I felt that things could be dealt with better. You may note that I only mention Cox in one brief paragraph and that my chief criticism is of science journalists who picked up the Kunkle story and ran with it and who made use of some very bad history (remember, this is a history of science blog).

      I don’t want the BBC to spend more time on astrology – I’d rather Cox hadn’t bothered to mention it at all (although I would love a serious history of astronomy that explained the role of astrology as well as navigation, timekeeping and cartography). You and TV scientists can say astrology is crap all you like, and those who are already convinced will applaud. Those who are not will have learned nothing.

      As for the “hand-waving” about intolerance – I think the only person embarrassed is you. You know I’m right on that one.

  22. I left you alone before but still you insisted on waving your hands around and saying what a naughty boy I was and how I hadn’t read your posting or hadn’t understood it. It didn’t wash then and it doesn’t wash now.

    You talk of “the fallacy that astrologers don’t understand precession”. Astrologers don’t understand science, full stop. Lumping one branch of astrology together and calling it “tropical astrology” and saying that because of that precession of the equinox doesn’t make a difference is an error. Astrology based on the zodiac had been around for nearly a millennium before Ptolemy introduced the tropical system, and he did it because precession, which had been discovered but not taken into account, was beginning to be a serious problem. Other cultures have retained sidereal astrology, and the two lots have occasional arguments about it.

    So of course the changing astronomical zodiac matters, and if you think it doesn’t it’s because you’ve been listening too little to scientists, who know astronomy, and too much to astrologers who know nothing much.

    But at least you now appear to accept that the astrologers’ silly complaints about Cox are based on fantasy.

    “they should stop and find another way of demonstrating the difference between astronomy and astrology because THIS ISN’T IT!”

    No, actually it is. Tropical astrology is tied to accidents of the earth’s rotation. Astrology itself is based on risible hypotheses about the significance of planetary positions relative to those accidents. It’s bollocks. Astrology is a science. I don’t know whether this is getting through to you yet, you being a historian of science and all.

    “my chief criticism is of science journalists”

    Tell me about it. Don’t blame scientists for what those loons do and say.

    ‘As for the “hand-waving” about intolerance – I think the only person embarrassed is you. You know I’m right on that one.’

    Well you’re the person who has set herself up as a historian of science. I’m just this guy, you know? If I were wrong, I’m quite capable of admitting it. But you seem to be pedalling backwards and just the right speed for now.

    • If you can’t see the consistency of my position and all that I’ve put forward on this page then I will stop bothering with you.

    • You talk of “the fallacy that astrologers don’t understand precession”. Astrologers don’t understand science, full stop. Lumping one branch of astrology together and calling it “tropical astrology” and saying that because of that precession of the equinox doesn’t make a difference is an error. Astrology based on the zodiac had been around for nearly a millennium before Ptolemy introduced the tropical system, and he did it because precession, which had been discovered but not taken into account, was beginning to be a serious problem. Other cultures have retained sidereal astrology, and the two lots have occasional arguments about it.

      If you are going to try and argue with the history of science then you should at least get that history right!

      Both the tropical system and zodiacal astrology date from the 5th century BCE.

  23. “Astrology is a science. I don’t know whether this is getting through to you yet, you being a historian of science and all.”

    READ: “Astronomy is a science…”

    Apologies for not catching that one.

  24. It’s perplexing why this line of objection that “astrology is a science” is continuing. I presume it is an outdated hang-back from days of old – possibly the 17th Century which Rebekah mentions – because I don’t know any astrologers in the 21st Century who consider themselves scientists or that we’re doing anything scientific! As far as I can see, we use scientifically collected data and mathematics to create charts and that’s the end of it.

    Obviously the further back in history we go, before the printing of ephemerides, astrologers had to collect their own data which required sound scientific ability, but not anymore. Fortunately for me, my computer software has an integrated ephemeris for thousands of years and it does all the calculations for me – doing this by hand from a printed ephemeris is very tedious (it’s taught in classes still) and I probably wouldn’t want to do astrology if that was the only way!

    So Tony I agree with you, modern astrology in the 21st Century is NOT a science. That still doesn’t mean it’s ‘rubbish’ though!!

    It occurs to me that this argument persists because some people are very entrenched in holding onto their views, however incorrect or outdated, because of bias and no amount of explaining that their perception is skewed will change anything. So in a way this argument isn’t about validity of astrology so much as difficulty in correcting perceptions which requires a psychological shift. It may not be possible to resolve this issue at all, but it certainly will not happen until public perception, and especially that in the scientific community, becomes more accurate and then we can talk about astrology’s validity from similar standpoint of what astrology is in its entirety.

    • @Feebee This is not entirely the fault of critics of astrology. I think most commenters speaking up for astrology on the Guardian post did take the same position as you, but not all. See also, for example, the Open Letter addressed to me (see my comment replying to Darin above). This listed all sorts of studies in order to try and convince me of astrology’s scientific credentials. This makes it confusing for outsiders, to say the least.

      But by and large I think your point highlights the weirdness of the fact that many science advocates (for want of a better term) seem to consider astrology so threatening to their worldview.

  25. “Here are some idiots. They call themselves X. Therefore X are idiots. What? You’re nitpicking about some other definition of X that I’ve never heard of? But they’re idiots! And they talk rubbish! Oh, so now we’re not supposed to call X rubbish when X is rubbish? X should stop complaining that they don’t do that rubbish which the idiots do, because they’re idiots!”

    … is this paraphrase of some responses to RH’s post here, and her CiF piece, too unfair?

  26. Hello Rebekah,

    Perhaps there is a discrepancy around what we understand by the term scientific – I do not regard the reading and interpretation of a chart to be a scientific process because we do not apply strict rules of logic in doing so, although there are defined parameters that must be applied. Nor can I see that the fact that scientific evidence of proof has been sought and produced – or attempts for it at least – elevates astrology to scientific practice, even though I have read some of the Gauquelins’ work and am aware that other research currently is going on with bodies such as the National Council for Geocosmic Research:
    and the International Society for Astrological Research:

    The point seems more whether astrology is scientifically verifiable, not whether it is a science in practice. Opinion in the scientific community seems inconclusive as to whether the Gauquelins’ research, and others’, are valid or not , as agreement between scientists and astrologers on a model of application that satisfies probability or chance does not seem to have been reached as far as I can see. As I am not a scientist, I was unable to guage the validity of the Gauquelins’ work from a scientific stance or form any strong opinion about it, because I do not know enough about probability, although I was very interested by the findings. On the one hand I would love for astrology to be proven as having validity through a scientific model, but on the other, I am not certain astrologers should be forced to find one by cynical, dogmatic logicists and the pursuit seems more to satisfy them than astrologers. That is not to say I’m not curious if it can be validated, I am and would also love to know what the mechanism is that drives it but I don’t need either to be convinced of astrology’s validity. At the end of the day, even if any of these research projects proved astrology was verifiable in some way, I still would not regard it as a scientific pursuit! This is my personal view I must add, as I am only interested in a particular area of human psychology and I know some astrologers in other areas of speciality have much greater astronomical knowledge and what its effects are.

    The issue of finding a mechanism for astrology is discussed in a fascinating interview printed in the Mountain Astrologer in 1998, between Bronwyn Elko and the astronomer Dr Percy Seymour entitled: “The Magus of Magnetism” and which I found from a link on the astrologer Robert Currey’s website. With humility and laughter Dr Seymour recalls the realisation of his own dogmatic prejudice against astrology and how that led to him searching for a scientific theory for its mechanism and how that may account for a genetic predisposition to pick up particular planetary signals. His theory links in to that which Dr Gary Schwartz (who I mentioned before) put forward in his book The Energy Healing Experiments regarding a ‘field’ of energetic activity and in fact offers the theory that this field may be connected to the astrological effect, which I speculated about in my earlier post.

    Here are a couple of quotes: “I found myself delving deeper into the scientific objections to astrology, and it became quite clear to me that the arguments being put forth were based on single-link theories, simple models that are easy to disprove.” and “It’s my view that those who use simplistic models to disprove astrology are violating the principles of the philosophy of science, which is a particular interest of mine. From the viewpoint of the philosophy of science, any number of theories may be shown not to work, but to say it follows that no theory of astrology can work is just bad science. It totally rules out scientific method. So, having examined the arguments that supposedly disproved astrology, I came to the conclusion that they were totally unscientific – a form of rationalized bigotry cloaked in academic language.” Here is the interview in full :

    I would also like to direct you to Robert Currey’s article about empirical astrology, as he discusses at great length, and with much deeper knowledge and thoroughness than I can, the issue of why it is no longer acceptable to dismiss astrology as rubbish on a scientific basis (I don’t know him personally btw):

    Currey also has an article about Dr Seymour’s book The Scientific Proof of Astrology which apparently Richard Dawkins expressed interest in but, at that point anyway, had not read. Judging from Dawkin’s current alliance with Cox, he either hasn’t read the book or wasn’t convinced:

    I would particularly like to point you towards the link ‘Galileo’s telescope’, where Currey discusses the world view of scientists:

  27. @Yemon Choi, no, the astrologers discovered a particular tangential and silly problem related to their pointless but lucrative practice some two millennia ago, introduced an inelegant and worthless kludge, and have carried on ignoring the problem ever since. Now when scientists point at the mess and laugh, they don’t care about the kludge because it doesn’t resolve the problem, and it makes the dishonesty of the practice obvious even to people who would normally fall for their crap. And most scientists just say baldly that it’s tripe.

    Then Rebekah comes along and says yes, it’s shit pie, but we’re letting the side down by failing to acknowledge the culinary skill of the chef.

    It’s tripe. All astrologers using the zodical system as kludged by Ptolemy know as well as the dilettante that it is an artificial system with daft characteristics assigned according to mythology–Mercury the messenger, Mars the warrior, and so on–and we all know that it’s long been out of kilter with its original zodiac.

  28. In response to Beto Pimentel above on 1 Feb, I think the seasonal matter is a very interesting one. However again, I don’t think the test suggested is quite as ‘easy’ as stated for several reasons and I would like to point out that this notion is typical of the type of thing that occurs when astrology, and astronomy, are not fully understood.

    The first reason is because a natal chart considers all the celestial bodies in our galaxy as well as the nodes, so the season, ie the sun’s position, is just one element. This is the same limiting problem with the Gauquelin’s approach to astrological research, even though their findings were surprisingly significant. It is very problematical to isolate one element of a chart and try to determine something important about a person from it alone, as sun sign columns demonstrate perfectly, even though they are fun to read. This is why serious astrology takes into account the entire chart. Secondly, even if you could find volunteers with accurate birth times, (a real problem, especially in the UK) who were born in the southern and northern hemispheres on the same day they would have to be born at different times so they shared the same Ascendant degree, but then the MC point would be at different degrees, as would the Moon. So I do not think that this would be acceptable from an astrological point of view.

    Setting aside the seasonal idea, even if sufficient numbers of people sharing the same birth time and place could be found, we would need to compare events in their lives, careers, hobbies and their personalities etc for concurrent themes that fit the archetype of the signs and planets involved. And here is the critical point which becomes clear when one learns astrology – it is impossible to know how someone uses the ‘energetic potential’ shown in the chart. People are born into very different homes, family dynamics, cultures and races and all these things affect the way the chart characteristics will be absorbed and expressed. Additionally, and for ease, we also say that we don’t know who the ‘soul’ is that is born in that moment which could determine the choices made in using the various energies. This is why all individuals are so… well… individual! Nevertheless, it would be expected that the archetypes of the various planets and signs within the same chart will manifest in one way or another.

    The Gauquelin-type experiment works to a point because it looks at eminent people and by definition these are rare but have very specific features in their charts and astrologers are aware of the importance of the angles. With the Mars effect, or the Saturn effect, one may find the same feature in the chart of non-famous people involved in sport or science, they have just expressed it to a different level or in a different way and it may be as a hobby instead of a career for eg. It still validates astrology from our point of view. So this is one of the difficulties with double-blind studies because it is necessary to have sufficient variables to cover the range of possibilities within the chart and my understanding is that this would not satisfy the scientific community. It does satisfy astrologers though because we understand the language so we also know that there are certain manifestations that would be unlikely to occur and we are not looking for absolutes in expression.

    And by the way, from experience, Zodiacal astrology works in the southern hemisphere in spite of the season reversal, Bernadette Brady is Australian for instance and is practising it with great dexterity. Not only that, but half my family come from the Southern Hemisphere and it seems to work with them too!

    • Hi Feebee,

      Thanks for clarifying. We keep trying to treat it as if it were a scientific enterprise, and always end up in some kind of “dragon-in-the-garage” catch, trying to falsify something unfalsifiable by principle.

      The funny thing is: (and I wonder) how many of us scientific-oriented-minds would be convinced of Astrology’s premises if the results of some experimentum crucis showed us Astrology to be correct?

    • Although, still: as far as I could understand the research about the influence of seasons on personality etc. from the little I read in the news about it, it deals with the influence of seasons DURING THE WHOLE PREGNANCY, while (again, as far as I can understand it) the astrological influence is solely related to the positions of celestial bodies IN THE MOMENT OF BIRTH, so there is still a reasonable test (quite dangerous, though) in flying a 9-month pregnant woman from, say, Cape Town to London to give birth, in such a way that following her son’s or daughter’s personality could give us some clue about which was the case. Perhaps you would need a statistically representative sample, and still take into account all the psychological nuances of character etc., but I guess it would still be a reasonable gedanken.
      Would you concede on that? 🙂

  29. […] I don’t want to discuss this particular exhibit, mainly because I haven’t seen it*. I also want to avoid comments focusing on this one example rather than the general principle. So, please don’t tell me (again) why you think there are problems with ‘Living Traditions’ in particular. Please also note, I am supportive of the right kind of campaign against homeopathy, just as I support the right kind of arguments against astrology. […]

  30. Hello Rebekah,

    While it is good to see an effort made to put the astronomical arguments against astrology put to rest, because it has no basis, there are still many people who wish to claim that astrology is rubbish on other grounds. You yourself still want to make this assertion, but how closely have you examined those supposed other grounds? There is a body of evidence that research of astrology, when it is conducted fairly and uses methods to carefully weigh the data by rank or ratings, has shown scientific evidence in support of astrology.

    Those experiments that did not use rankings or ratings, do not find evidence of astrology, but those that did use these methods (and there are a number of them) have found scientific support.

    An outstanding example of this is one that you alluded to earlier, the controversial Shawn Carlson double-blind experiment, published in 1985 in Nature, which has actually been reversed in favor of astrology.

    For many years, this study was held up as the definitive test against astrology. However, a detailed assessment of this study published in 2009 by Professor Suitbert Ertel is forcing scientists to rethink their claims against astrology. The flaws in the Carlson study are very tricky to find, making one wonder if they are not intentional, but they are so serious that they distort the actual findings, which is that the data supports the claims of the astrologers. Once the flaws are pointed out, this is easy for anyone to see.

    I invite you and your readers to read my article on the Carlson study and Ertel assessment:


    And the original 1985 Carlson article itself: http://muller.lbl.gov/papers/Astrology-Carlson.pdf

    I’d be interested in knowing your thoughts.

  31. Thank you Rebekah for your clarity.

    I think I remember a letter of consensus debunking astrology signed by a large number of scientists. As I recall, Carl Sagan refused to sign on grounds similar to those you have pointed out, despite being a passionate adversary of pseudoscience. But I can’t seem to find this letter. Are you familiar with it?

    One difficulty of experimental astrology is that most of it’s claims are difficult to test, particularly in light of the well justified standard of “extraordinary evidence”; astrology being an extraordinary claim. Positions of the outer planets change slowly, corresponding to decades here on Earth, so typical hypotheses involving outer planets can be explained away by long term sociological changes, thus thwarting repeatability within a reasonable time frame. The sun and moon are problematic because effects have well establish mundane explanations (e.g. many biological systems are, in fact, tuned to the phases of the moon). Attempts at proving astrology often attempt to cover a large number of vague hypotheses with evidence of uncertain quality.

    I’d propose, to anyone interested in proving astrology, testing the hypothesis that the retrograde motion of Mercury correlates in any way with difficulty of communication. One would be hard-pressed to explain away a statistically significant result. Virtually unlimited data are readily available (dropped calls, lost mail, email returned to sender, etc.), and unbiased repeatability is trivially guaranteed, since the phenomenon has a period of only a few months.

    I’ve been puzzling over a thought experiment. Suppose some technologically advanced aliens decide to play a funny trick on us for their amusement. Starting tomorrow, astrology suddenly starts working. People with problematic Mars aspects start committing the majority of violent crimes, and marriages with harmonious aspects start succeeding consistently, etc. My question is this: In such a world, how long would it take for the scientific community to reach a consensus to accept astrology? Can you imagine trying to publish the first paper with “extraordinary evidence” (such as a study of Mercury retrograde)? If you were to stumble upon such evidence, would you dare to perform a study and publish a paper? Would you be able to get it published? In other words, is extraordinary evidence sufficient for extraordinary claims?

    • Hi Ken,

      The source you are looking for is a letter to The Humanist, over the article “Objections to Astrology: A statement by 186 leading scientists” in which Sagan refused to sign because of the “authoritative tone” of the document. Sagan, and later Paul Feyerabend, recognized that the scientists were appealing to their own authority and nothing else. Appeals to authority are often cited as evidence against astrology. Yet an assertion is not true because of the position or authority of the person who makes the assertion. Appeal to authority is a fallacy that violates the rational criterion or relevance.

      Sagan, Carl. “Reader’s Forum,” The Humanist, Vol. 36 (1), January/February 1976.

      You make a very poignant remark about “Is extraordinary evidence sufficient for extraordinary claims?” Would any organization have the courage to fund a study of Mercury retrograde? Would any scientist have the courage to do the research? Would any scientific publication have the courage to publish the results? Welcome to the world of astrology research as it exists today.

      The few scientific studies that have followed proper scientific methods (e.g. Clark, Hill & Thompson, Gauquelin, Ertel, Marbell) were funded out of the pockets of the researchers themselves. They discovered extraordinary things.

  32. Hi Rebekah, I don’t expect you to post this message, but it covers a lot of the problems between astrology and modern science, which are at issue in your blog. I wrote this for the editors of the Wikipedia Astrology article, currently blocked from editing pending resolution over the claim of pseudoscience in the lead section. I am sending it to your for your information hoping it will help you to sort out the differing points of view on astrology. If you do wish to comment, which I would welcome, you can find this message posted on my personal blog at http://bit.ly/h7Grzz

    Remove straw man and authoritarian arguments from the Wikipedia Astrology article

    The Wikipedia Astrology article is riddled with straw man arguments and authoritarian decrees and the Talk page is filled with silly discussions over these rational fallacies. Editors should remove these fallacies.

    Astrology is a very old discipline and unfortunately it has outgrown, and is now misrepresented by, some of its own language. In a similar way, the branch of astrology that became meteorology is a misrepresentation because it is not the study of meteors, but rather of weather. The use of ancient terminology leads people who are ignorant of astrology, or people who are just deviant literalists, to accuse astrology of having pseudoscientific claims. For these people to set up these terms as straw men and require astrologers to defend the literal meanings is a fallacy that violates the rational criterion of relevance.

    The study of astrology connects the modern world with ancient traditions. The word “astrology” derives from “star” but astrologers will study whatever celestial bodies they wish to study, just like the meteorologists are not confined to the study of meteors to forecast weather. That astrology must only study “stars” is irrelevant and to argue over this is silly and irrational.

    To insist that astrology is a pre-Copernican view that equates to belief in a flat Earth, is ignorant. Astrology uses a relativistic frame of reference that no scientist would argue with. It maps the celestial bodies relative to the person or thing to be studied, which is placed at the center, and this is neither the Sun nor the Earth. What we know as stars have always been stars. All other bodies in the solar system, including the Sun and Moon, are considered to be, for want of a better word, “planets” of the person or subject to be studied because these bodies all move in some interesting fashion around the subject, which is at the center.

    Imagine now that you are at the center of your own universe and the planets and stars around you are your planets and your stars, because this is your universe. If you think this sounds New Age, then you’ve come to the right place. This “new” point of view is also very ancient. To say that astrology is Earth-centered, or must not call the Sun and Moon planets, is a straw man designed to start a silly, irrational argument.

    The same goes for the difference between the signs and some of the constellations that have the same names. Astrologers have known about this and made their choice more than 2000 years ago. Signs are measured from the vernal point and are unrelated to the starry constellations. To confuse signs with constellations because of the similarity in names is silly and irrational.

    Planetary or stellar “influence” is not a causal effect emanating from the planets and stars that astrologers directly measure. Everyone knows that the meanings in astrology are inferred from empirical observations, despite the mechanical implications of word “influence.” Similarly, in some new sciences ordinary words fail or are used metaphorically and even whimsically. To argue over the semantics of this is silly and irrational.

    The “symbolic language” of astrology is not a mystery or ambiguous. It has followed the same development that any syntactical representation of symbols such as used in chemistry, mathematics, or any written language uses and the results can be seen and understood in any astrology text. To argue over the analysis of “symbols” or the speaker of a “language” with regard to astrology is a straw man and is silly and irrational.

    Astrological “rulership” does not mean that the planets manipulate people by remote control. “Rulership” may not be the best word, but it is the tradition and astrologers know what it means. It is a non-judgmental observation of one property or thing regarded as a set that typically indicates the presence of other properties or things as members, often theorized as a correlation. To argue over the literal meaning of “rulership” is silly and irrational.

    These are all straw man and red herring fallacies and editors should not be drawn into semantic arguments and silly, irrational debates over them. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Straw_man

    Throughout the Wikipedia astrology article, astrology is conceptually misrepresented as being some sort of “alternative” to science, as an absolutist, black and white, either-or situation of conflicting paradigms battling for scientific supremacy. This is not the case. Like other disciplines adopted by New Age thinkers, astrology is “complementary.” It fills in the voids left by conventional, more scientific approaches, which are nonetheless necessary for healthy living and informed perspectives.To characterize modern science and astrology as adversarial is again a straw man designed to start a silly irrational argument.

    Over the course of history, astrology has had its own reforms and revolutions in thought. Paracelsus understood astrology as a question of “correlations” between macroscopic and microscopic worlds rather than direct physical influences, because no causal connections could be determined. This was a radical theory at the time, but gradually the idea of non-causal correlations became adopted. Francis Bacon added to this with his suggestion that the stars “rather incline than compel.” This represented a puzzle for astrologers and scientists interested in astrology to figure out and evaluate. The methods by which correlational effects can be mathematically measured and weighed to show inclinations is relatively new in astrology, and have been statistically demonstrated in falsifiable tests only within the past 30 years.

    The Science section of the article is filled with a succession of the subjective beliefs of one scientist after another, from al-Farabi to Neil deGrasse Tyson. It directly emulates the controversial 1975 Humanist “Objections to Astrology” article signed by 186 leading scientists. Astronomer Carl Sagan objected to the “Objections” article because the scientists argued solely on the basis of their own authority and this gives the impression of closed mindedness. Physicist Paul Feyerabend compared the “Objections” article to the Malleus Maleficarum, which launched the Inquisition, only he regarded it as being worse.

    These claims by notable scientists against astrology that Wikipedia has listed are more of the same thing. They are not scientific at all, but are arguments from authority by people who have not studied astrology and have no idea what they are talking about. Editors should be mindful of these fallacies and allow only factual objective information where science is concerned. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Argument_from_authority and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Argument_from_ignorance

    To declare that astrology is a pseudoscience from the outset is detrimental to legitimate scientists who may wish to investigate it. Scientists have a right to study and test whatever they want and to challenge other scientists based on their evaluations and discoveries. Because of recent empirical assessments, in particular the reversal of the renowned 1985 Shawn Carlson study, which in 2009 was found to support astrology, and improved methods of ranking and rating data, there is an expectation of further scientific advances in astrology.

    No one, least of all astrologers, expects all of astrology to be amenable to scientific evaluation. For example, there has been a lively proliferation and discourse of psychological theories among astrologers, such as those postulated by Carl Jung. Yet only a few of these theories may ever be scientifically evaluated. The theories of astrology are complex and its practice requires intuition to deal with the combination of many variables. For these reasons and others, such as the scarcity of accurate data and the lack of funding, astrology has not been easy to scientifically investigate.

  33. “They should stick to the issue of celestial ‘influence’ and step away from that of celestial mechanics. ”
    Well put.

    Great blog post Dr. Higgins.
    Your text discusses whether astrologers understand the celestial mechanics (the astronomical mathematics if you wish) and not whether their predictions carry any validity. I am not sure why some people were carried away in their misconception instead of addressing what you really wrote.
    Your point as I understood it, was to demonstrate that astroLogers knew about precession (and where very familiar with it in a mathematical sense) so that particular argument was moot and poor science.
    Expanding the above, the various refutations (against anything; not merely astrology) which are based on ignorance and hearsay has little to do with respectful, serious and solid arguments and one should get “their facts straight” before making a ridicule of themselves by stating completely misguided opinions (that lack any basic historical or scientific foundation). The aforementioned applies to every argument, on any subject: know first, judge after.

  34. Thony C, what one “should” write in a free medium is up to themselves – perhaps you heard the idea of it somewhere, is called freedom of thought and speech. Maybe you heard it under a different term: freedom of choice.
    One can dispute what another one “should” write after they have addressed successfully the points made, OR they should stress out and distinguish clearly “I will not bother with what you said at all because, I can not mentally overcome the primary issue as I see it”, which is not bad per se.
    However that resembles Epicurus elaborating on how exactly pleasure leads to attaining ευδαιμονία which is the purpose of life (in Epicurean opinion) and having some Christian priest telling him he SHOULD be arguing that pleasure is downright bad, ignoring thereafter all the points Epicurus would make.
    Or, discussing about Socrates views on whether politics can be taught or not and someone demanding to argue whether Socrates existed or was fiction, invalidating the whole current discourse.
    That, makes for bad philosophy and similarly for bad science.

    Apologies for the hijacking and derailing of the post. To get back on track, the point – as I understood it – is: astrologers know about precession (Hipparchus), about the fact earth moves around the sun and not vice versa (Babylonians, Aristarchus), about Ophiuchus and constellations (Ptolemy wrote down 48 of them), Saros cycles (Chaldeans), about comets, meteors and celestial bodies, their speeds and distances, about apparent brightness and luminosity, about stellar parallax, eccentrics and epicycles and so on. And what is more, most of that is known since antiquity and medieval times, where astronomy was hand in hand with astrology.
    It is sad ignorance if a scientist disputes that and a downright joke among astrologers.
    Dr. Higgitt, being her own subject History of Science, is aware of this and if I were in her shoes, I would be rather ‘unhappy’ seeing scientists know so little about their own subjects’ history.

  35. you control your own life, not stars. i think my life became better when i stopped believing in astrology. I mean, who died and made them God..Its like saying people are not unique and are similar because they are limited to “those” personalities. Also in a way contradicting to what everybody says. Everyone is unique hmmmmmm
    13th constellation, so I was what then i became what…….so my whole chart changes and they have to start giving me my new identity? and not being what i really am.
    In the end its all like a belief, the nice things that they say to make people to feel better about themselves. Required, but not true, major ego boost here.

  36. […] out what the news was; what the big deal could be." January 23, 2011 by Rebekah Higgitt “Astrology is rubbish”, but… | Whewell's Ghost Ernest _________ Reply With Quote   + Reply to Thread « […]

  37. If Astrology is defined basically as the Effect of Astronomical objects on other Astronomical objects including the Sun, Earth & its Biosphere, then as certain coral are effected by the Full Moon & Sea Turtles lay eggs during the Full Moon & Fishermen are effected by the high tides & there’s an annual Electrical cycle related to the distance of the Earth from the Sun & Seasons influence peoples behaviour & the time of Year one is born could determine how likely you are to suffer from a mental illness, then it seems to e that the basic premise of Astrology is supported.

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