Saturday, December 15, 2007

Astrology: Astronomy's Specious Sister

In a vain attempt to confer legitimacy on astrology, its proponents, purveyors and defenders often vigorously assert that astrology is astronomy’s older “sister” and paved the way for the latter, genuine science to emerge as what it is today. Maybe, but that doesn’t mean we retain the pseudo-science any more than we retain the use of hornets and wasps to remove toxins from wounds, as opposed to relying on current medicine!

Astrology buffs will also resort to listing names of the rich and famous who have relied (or currently rely) on horoscopes. After citing so many luminaries (including the late President Reagan and the British Royal Family), along with impressive anecdotal accounts of astrology-enriched lives, I am implored to be "realistic". "If such important people as these can embrace astrology, how can it possibly be wrong? How in the world can you possibly deny its validity?"

Actually, it's very easy, because it doesn't really work! Astrology is bogus, because its claims of success are based on false assumptions and outright errors. Any "good" fortune, or "bad" is largely a matter of the throw of the dice. There are no stars which control fortune, just as there are none which determine who is destined to be short, tall, beautiful or ugly. Astrology is based on star configurations two thousand years old, which no longer exist but are treated as if they do! You see, dear reader, there is this very slow process called precession. Anyone who has ever played with a toy gyroscope would have noticed how the axis made a large loop as the gyroscope wobbled.

The Earth acts the same way: like a giant, spinning top. It takes much longer, however, because it is vastly bigger than a toy gyroscope. The whole process for the Earth requires about 25,800 years to go through one complete cycle. Because the polar axis points at different areas of the sky over this time, it means that there is also a continual change in the position of the equinoxes. (These are the points in the sky where the Sun is located on the first day of Spring: March 20 or 21 for the Vernal Equinox, or the first day of autumn: September 22 or 23 for the Autumnal Equinox).

The Vernal Equinox is called the "first point of Aries" by astrologers, since it was originally in that sign two thousand years ago. The problem is that the Vernal Equinox no longer is located in Aries, but in the adjacent constellation/sign: Pisces! In the two thousand years since the Sun signs were devised, the Earth's axis has precessed out of the original alignment, and with it the equinoxes! This means that each of the other eleven so-called Sun signs used in horoscopes is out by the same amount: one entire Sun sign. For consistency, all present day birthdays need to be re-calibrated to the preceding sign. So if your birthday is July 6, like mine, you are no longer a Cancer but a Gemini! If it is October 4, you are no longer a Libra, but the sign just before, Virgo! And so on for each sign of the zodiac, displaced by a full 30 degrees. This means that the entire underpinning of zodiac signs, and their descriptions, is in error! All the personality and temperamental characteristics attributed to "Leo the Lion", for example, really belong to "Cancer the Crab"! This implies that no modern-day horoscope can possibly be correct!

None of the astrologers I've spoken with are overly concerned by this, though they should be for the sake of credibility. They usually say something to the effect that the "real" (original twelve signs) are "forever fixed" as they were two thousand years ago. They insist that my pre-occupation with signs being out of step is not a matter of genuine signs at all, but the constellations (star patterns) associated with them! In their incredible view, the zodiacal constellations are shifted by the Earth's precession, but not the fundamental signs! These signs will remain firmly anchored in the sky, immune to all Earth's motions, forever and ever!

This answer obscures more than it illuminates, and in any case is illogical. What if, for example, the horological school of astrology originated two thousand years later, in our modern era? All the "basic" or "fixed" signs would then be thirty degrees displaced! (Pisces instead of Aries, Gemini instead of Cancer, and so on). Similarly, if horological astrology had been developed two thousand years earlier than it actually was, the signs would be thirty degrees displaced the other way. (Taurus instead of Aries, Leo instead of Cancer, and so on.)

Even if one were generous enough to grant astrologers the benefit of the doubt, other serious problems arise. For example, Greek horological astrology is based on the entirely fallacious concept of a geocentric (Earth-centered) cosmos. In this view (of Ptolemy), the Earth was the center of the solar system and the Sun just another planet going round it! The very brightness of the Sun was like a kind of beacon which, when it appeared in a given sign at the time of birth, disclosed the nature of the person. With the Sun in Leo, one expected a "courageous and fearless" person; with the Sun in Cancer one expected a "reclusive and defensive" person; with the Sun in Taurus one expected a "stubborn or headstrong" person (like a bull). In each case, there is an analogy between the personality traits and the sign's "creature characteristics".

The trouble is that there is no objective basis for supposing any genuine correspondence. The reason is that the stars observed from Earth do not occur in any persistent patterns. Indeed, they are not even all the same distance away! They are purely random, temporary configurations, on to which astrologers have superimposed imaginary images: bull, lion, crab, fish or whatever. Even as I write these words, the stars which make up the zodiacal constellations are speeding in different directions. There really is no such thing as a fixed star, on scales of cosmic time anyway. In about one hundred thousand years, none of the star patterns seen today will even remotely resemble a "Lion", or "Archer" or "Bull" or anything else! I should point out (again) that this would not bother the typical astrologer. Unruffled, he or she would persist in referring to the "basic unchanging signs".

Cunning though they are, astrologers have a harder time justifying their symbolic use of the planets. For example, positive astrological forecasts are the norm when Venus is prominent in one's sign, since that planet is named after the goddess of love. From afar, it also looks like a brilliant jewel set among the other celestial bodies (by virtue of its extreme brightness, third after the Sun and Moon). The truth, astronomically speaking, is that Venus is a hellhole.

However, decades ago, telemetry from the Mariner 4 and Magellan probes, revealed Venus to have surface temperatures of over 750 degrees Fahrenheit and an atmosphere with plenty of sulphuric acid to go with it. If you wanted to locate a single place to call "hell" you couldn't do much better than Venus. The astrologers, however, are concerned exclusively with how it looks in the sky to us, from a tremendous distance. (Though I have at times thought of informing them that Venus' original name was Lucifer!)

Mars is another planet that astrologers invoke in their symbolism. Most often, they attribute a "maleficent influence" to Mars. Its presence is associated with undefined aggression, hostility or some kind of impending confrontation or war. (Naturally, as its color is blood red!) Some astrologers have insisted that those born with Mars in their Sun sign are destined to become warriors, or soldiers. All these associations follow from the color. In truth, the color is not from blood at all but a chemical comprising most of soil of the planet: iron oxide, or rust. As in random star patterns, there is no objective basis for presuming any analogy between human personalities and planets.

It is clear that astrology would collapse under its own weight if the outdated information on which it is based were simply updated, using modern astronomical findings. Astronomers especially wish that this would happen, and the sooner the better. The way they reason is like this: If all those billions of dollars now going into astrology 900-numbers, books and charts were to suddenly stop, it might start reaching some astronomer badly in need of research funding. Projects that are on the verge of being scuttled, for lack of budgetary allocations, could then be saved. The money would have gone towards the acquisition of genuine knowledge about the solar system and universe, instead of supporting bogus "insights" and personal forecasts.

In this regard, another aspect of astrology that has always puzzled me is the lack of any sophisticated instrumentation. For something like two thousand years astrologers have been using the same basic set of Sun signs and charts in arriving at their horoscopes. Because of a lack of instruments, they cannot detect if any new objects are in the zodiacal signs. Indeed, they appear totally oblivious to the prospect of any "hidden" objects there. True, astrologers are now using computers more and more, but these are not observational instruments.
Meanwhile, astronomers have fashioned ever more powerful and sophisticated instruments, many aboard satellites, to reveal a cosmos teeming with dazzling and diverse phenomena from exploding stars to colliding galaxies to black holes. The diversity of the objects discovered is directly related to the diversity of techniques and instruments available.

When asked about this, astrologers are notoriously silent, as if it really doesn't matter. In a memorable debate several years ago, I asked my astrologer counterpart whether astrology reckons the influences of all the colliding galaxies, black holes and x-ray pulsars which have been discovered in the constellations of the zodiac. She said that those objects "belong to astronomy" and: "In any case, the Sun, Moon and planets have far more powerful effects than distant exotic objects". At that point I could not resist referring her to a just-published article by two members of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of the Paranormal (Kurtz, P. and Fraknoi, A.: 1988, “Belief in the Stars is not a Good Sign”, Skeptical Inquirer.),in which they cited calculations showing the obstetrician at a baby's birth exerts a much more powerful gravitational influence on the newborn than either Sun, Moon or other planet!

"Oh, really?" was her initial response, "I don't think that’s the same as an astrological influence".

Astrological influence? It struck me then and there that she hadn't the foggiest notion of what a gravitational field or force was. She had no conceptual framework for credible (physical) influences that could act: a) between different celestial bodies, and b) between celestial bodies and human bodies. When one thinks about it, however, why should a particular "alignment" of the same planets have any more importance than another? To the astronomer, the difference in gravitational effect is negligible. (The total gravitational force arising from the specious "Jupiter Effect" alignment of planets in 1982 was calculated to produce a tide of only one millimeter on the Sun's surface!)

By contrast, alignments are of pivotal importance to astrologers and can make all the difference in one's fortunes. Certain alignments are "harmonious" and others are "inharmonious". But try to pin down an astrologer about the necessary and sufficient conditions for each. The only response is astrological double talk like "the negativity of a trine is enhanced when Mars is in opposition." What does this mean anyway? In a science like astronomy, precision is demanded by the language, and specific terms have very specific meanings. In astrology, evidently, anything goes!

Most astronomers, understandably, have neither the time nor the patience to peel away all the fictitious layers and pseudo-scientific language to expose astrology for what it is. I've always felt, as an educator, that the effort must nonetheless be made. If scientists are unable to offer an objective critique of astrology, how can they expect students to take them seriously when they insist it is a fraud? How can they expect the thousands of daily horoscope readers to pay more than passing attention to genuine science? How in the world can they expect those who dabble in other astrology-related pastimes, such as numerology or tarot card readings, to sit up and take notice? The answer is they can't if they choose to pretend that pseudo-science doesn't exist.

It would be too easy to ignore the plight of the millions of gullible souls who have been taken in by astrology. The unsympathetic attitude of most professionals is "they deserve what they get for buying into that garbage". But this misses the point, and can be deleterious to all science in the long run. The fact is that a former U.S. President consulted an astrologer, and many businesses and corporations unashamedly employ the services of astrologers to get a "competitive edge". People see this and start to think: "Hey, if these big shots are into it, there must be something to it after all!" Astronomers, like it or not, occupy the final fallback position in the effort to rescue society from this superstitious and pseudo-scientific scam.

Why should a professional astronomer care? Because each dollar diverted into astrology erodes the resource base he depends upon for ultimate support. Each dollar spent on an astrology book or chart is a dollar not spent on genuine knowledge, such as provided by astronomy. The net effect is a further retreat of our nation into backwardness and superstition at a time when it faces stiff competition from more educated foreign competitors. (Who are more likely to market astrology goods and services to us than import it themselves.)

Did I say superstition? Yes, because when the layers of arcane language are peeled away that is essentially what modern astrology is. If one is sufficiently persistent and pressures an astrologer long enough, the truth will emerge. The truth is that the astrological influences of which they write and speak are all psychic in nature. This is why certain alignments are "harmonious" while others are not. It is also why astrologers are not concerned about gravitational forces -they only recognize psychic "forces"!

Astrologers, by employing a clever scientific veneer, entice more folks into taking them seriously. People who would ridicule the idea of going to a psychic or fortune teller have no qualms about consulting an astrologer, since the astrologers' words are cleverly couched in scientific-sounding jargon. The "influence of a spirit" sounds downright medieval and superstitious, but not "The positive influence of the conjunction of Jupiter and Venus in your ascendant third house is highly beneficial".

Why do reasonably intelligent people, many of them college-educated, buy into astrology? There are undoubtedly many cogent reasons. Consider the fact that uncertainty continues to plague many lives: corporate downsizing and wage stagnation continues (at least for middle and working class households), families are being fractured in the time-crunch of the two wage earner necessity, and children are not being parented as a result, with the attendant increases in drug abuse and teen pregnancy. The integrity of the family is thereby eroded and traditional religions no longer seem to have credible answers to these problems. Into this bleak landscape astrology appears with its pat answers and legitimate-sounding jargon, which renders it believable to many.

Most of the people attracted are not ignorant or foolish, or even gullible. In many cases, they are genuinely sincere in seeking meaning or focus in their hectic lives. Astrology not only confers meaning but uniqueness as well. This illusion of unique applicability is a powerful force fuelling the faith in modern astrology. I am always fond of recalling the case of the French psychologist who advertised himself as an astrologer back in the 70's. He received hundreds of requests for his services, in response to which he sent out a single, ambiguous horoscope. The noteworthy point is that over two hundred grateful admirers took the time and trouble to write and thank him for his "accuracy and perceptiveness".

The job for the astronomer, or any scientist, is to show how meaning in life can be restored without the need for astrology. This is not an easy task. Most astrologers offer a simplistic explanation for the troubled times around the globe: it is still the "Age of Pisces" (a sorrowful period), but it will give way to the "Age of Aquarius", when a new era of unparalleled peace and prosperity will be ushered in. With such knowledge in hand, the difficulty in confronting the future is minimized. Living life from day to day is made bearable, where formerly it was intolerable.

By contrast, science imposes a remorseless and stringent demand for objectivity. There is no place for any scheme that bestows meaning on human affairs by codifying celestial events. The scientific view insists it is supreme arrogance to suppose that the entire vast universe is arranged only as a key to understanding the events on a remote, dust-speck of a planet - or worse, the personality traits of one of its billions of temporary inhabitants. This outlook violently contradicts the astrological notion of cosmic objects existing only as a hidden code for interpreting human lives. (Of course, with the advent of Derridian postmodernism, even the objectivity of science has been questioned severely – but that mode of solipsism is a topic for another article!)

How can we recapture the imaginations of those attracted to astrology? One of the most effective techniques I've seen appeared in the first episode of the highly acclaimed video series The Astronomers. In it, the former monk and telescope maker John Dobson is seen traveling around national parks of Oregon and towns in California, setting up his telescopes for the public to view. He does this for free, and treats each passerby to a spectacular scene, whether lunar craters, Jupiter's moons, Saturn's rings or sunspots during the day. The people are, without exception, taken aback and in a state of awe. They are then ready to listen to some of the information which Dobson has to impart. In his own little way, he is undermining the advance of astrology and its cousins by showing the richness of the natural - rather than supernatural, universe.

Most astronomers would not be interested in this sort of approach. Based on my own experience, and the astronomers I've known, they are more inclined to reclusive research or observation. As a rule, they tend not to be extroverted and colorful showmen or carnie barkers with telescopes! The next best thing, however, would be to offer special astronomy courses at a nearby community college. Such courses could be given at night, for no credit, to mainly adult students. This would be an investment of barely an hour or two each week to lecture and answer questions, and the return would be enormous.

If each astronomer could find a way to rekindle people's latent curiosity about the real universe, there would be no need for that curiosity to be squandered in search of a bogus one. Astrology will then die naturally, and I very much doubt anyone will mourn its passing.

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