Astrology – the real ones
Whenever I am getting to know someone new, and I reach the point where we both outline our beliefs, I always ask them if they believe in astrology first. I find that their response tends to give a fairly accurate indication as to where they draw their ‘rationality line’, separating the things they need evidence to believe, and the things they don’t. If they say:
“No, I don’t know much about it, but I just don’t buy it.”
This indicates that the person has a healthy combination of common sense and natural scepticism, without actually having an active interest. If they say:
“No, there’s no evidence to support it and until there is, I won’t believe it.”
I’ll think I’ve probably met someone of a like mind. This indicates methodical rationalism. However, the response I most frequently get is something like:
“Absolutely. But not that rubbish they print in the tabloids, the real ones.”
“The real ones, you know, the proper ones.”
The reason I ask about astrology rather than any of the other thousands of supernatural beliefs, is that I personally find it to be a particularly absurd and farfetched phenomenon. The extravagance of its claims, in contrast with their complete and utter lack of evidence, and the absence of any hypothesis as to how exactly they are supposed to work places it high up on the ‘sceptic’s most wanted’ list. Wikipedia defines astrology as
“ . . . a group of systems, traditions, and beliefs in which knowledge of the relative positions of celestial bodies and related details is held to be useful in understanding, interpreting, and organizing information about personality, human affairs, and other terrestrial matters . . . “
This is a concise definition, but the only omission is the relevance of the subject’s time of birth. There is no rational reason offered as to why this is important. However, when you consider that astrologers can offer no working explanation as to how giant lumps of rock and gases floating around in space millions and millions of miles away from us can affect our lives and personalities, asking about the time of birth just looks like nitpicking. If you press an astrologer, or an advocate of astrology for some sort of scientific explanation, the best you’ll get is a defiant “what about gravity?”. What about it, indeed! Relative to other forces, gravity is spectacularly weak. You overpower it every day just by standing up straight, and walking. At this moment, the gravitational force pulling you and your computer screen towards each other is many times stronger than the force pulling you towards any star or planet in the universe. “Well, what about the Moon and the tides?”. Newton’s theory of universal gravitation states that
“Every single point mass attracts every other point mass by a force heading along the line combining the two. The force is proportional to the product of the two masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between the point masses”
What this means, is that the mass of the two objects has the opposite effect on the gravitational pull that astrology would require for it to support its claims. In lay terms, the reason the Moon affects the tides, is that they are both big. The fact that a human being is smaller means that the force attracting her and the moon towards each other is smaller, not greater than the force pulling the Moon and the oceans towards each other. The same goes for the Sun with the planets in the solar system.
Let’s just say though, for the sake of argument, we grant the gravity claim a visitor’s pass to the rational world. Just suppose we accept that gravity could have sufficient strength to affect a human being. Why would there be any pattern? If there were a pattern, how exactly would we predict it? And why would the time of birth have anything to do with the pattern, why wouldn’t the gravity just affect all human beings the same? These are questions I often ask, and am yet to receive answers for.
We also have the problem that the claims of astrology simply can’t be reconciled with the world we live in. Surveys have shown time and time again that there is no correlation between peoples’ personalities and patterns of life events with zodiac signs, dates and times of birth.
With the flaws in astrology as a system per se aside, we now move on to astrologers themselves. Astrologers claim to be able to divine a person’s personality traits, and predict future events from the positions of the planets and stars. Many people who visit astrologers believe these claims because their reasoning is hampered by confirmation bias, the Forer effect and subjective validation. When astrologers are tested in a controlled environment, where they can’t use cold reading techniques, they fail. Always. Just to be absolutely clear, no astrologer has ever successfully demonstrated his abilities in controlled test conditions. A number of weak ad hoc reasons are often given in response to this, but I implore any believer in astrology to seriously ask themselves, if astrology’s claims were really true, wouldn’t a controlled test just be a doddle? True believers will go to any lengths to explain the results of such tests, with the exception of considering that maybe the claims astrologers make are simply false.
And what about the real ones? Many people I speak to who believe in astrology would happily agree with everything I’ve just said, as long as we’re only talking about the horoscopes printed in the morning papers. We’re not. This applies to all traditions of astrology.
One such so called ‘real’ or ‘respectable’ system of astrology is the Indian or Vedic system known as Jyotisha, which is heavily endorsed by and incorporated into the Transcendental Meditation movement. However, the essential claims are exactly the same between all variations of astrology, and they are all ‘neck and neck’ in the race to be the first one to present some credible evidence. Advocates of these superior systems of astrology need to explain on what grounds they reject one system and accept another. How do they know that their system of astrology is right and another is wrong, or simply fraudulent? (The problem is analogous to the hundreds of sects of Christianity who can’t agree on how to interpret a supposedly inerrant text.) The irony is, if they could answer that question, they probably wouldn’t believe in astrology at all.
The only possible difference they could offer, the only possible unit by which the validity of an astrologer might be measured, is the fee they charge for their service. Apparently, the ‘real’ astrologers charge hundreds of pounds/dollars/euros an hour, compared to the, say, £1.50 per minute you might be charged to call a number at the bottom of the horoscopes in the papers. Followers seem to think that the more money they have to pay, the more likely it is that they are not being deceived.
“So what? It’s just a bit of harmless fun.”
The last resort in the debate. The get out of jail free card. It is anything but! Astrology is not harmless. It can harm people financially, emotionally and psychologically. It is yet another way for people to think they can get a quick, snappy answer to a question without having to do any proper, hard work, or as a poor substitute for the courage to face life everyday accepting that there are some things you just don’t know, can’t account for and can’t plan for. Just been on a first date and want to know if you’re compatible? Go on another date and find out. People pay hard earned money to get advice about major, life changing decisions which, for all its claims, is made of nothing but hot air. Even by publishing free horoscopes in the papers, we are stifling free and independent thought and starving human beings of the ability to argue rationally, at a time in our history when it is as desperately needed as ever.
A few years ago, two planes were crashed into the World Trade Centre, killing nearly 3.000 people. You might wonder what this has to do with astrology. It has everything to do with it. People base decisions on astrological advice, without evidence. The terrorists responsible for the September 11th attacks believed they were carrying out glorious justice on God’s behalf and would go to paradise for their efforts, without evidence. This is the same problem on two vastly different scales, but once rational thought is abandoned, gargantuan gaps can be bridged alarmingly quickly. I’m not claiming that a believer in astrology is going to commit an act of terrorism any time soon, and I would hope that no astrological reading could lead to someone actually harming someone else in the name of astrology, but the question must be posed: What evidence does the astrology believer have for his own beliefs that a religiously fanatical terrorist doesn’t have for his? As well as the problems that astrology poses in and of itself, it is also symptomatic of a much greater problem. Mankind has to walk before it can run. If we can’t persuade people to see the inherent flaws in something like astrology, then we have a long way to go before we can tackle the more serious and imminent threat of religious faith.