I’ve discussed here and here how practitioners of paranormal piffle wish to look scientific. They fail under actual scientific scrutiny but, we have to admit, they are pretty effective at bamboozling the public with a sciencey show.
I came across a news story in Business Insider about an astrologer who was doing mighty well for herself. In times of uncertainty, society tends to turn to anything that will give them a sense of control. Astrologic and psychic advisors seem to fill that role for some people, even professional businesspeople. This astrologer, who thinks quite highly of her craft, had these things to say:
“What I do is scientific. Astrology involves careful methods learned over years and years of training and experience.”
“There are so many things we don’t understand in the world. What if 200 years ago someone had said that these metal barrels in the sky would get us around the world in a few hours? Or that we’d inject ourselves with mold to treat illnesses? People are so skeptical.”
And then I laughed.
Few examples of pseudoscience are more perfect than astrology, which has been studied A LOT, and whose practitioners still cannot demonstrate a root in reality.
Before Science, All You Had Was Astrology
Astrology has an ancient history: its origins are recognizable in 3000 year-old remnants of the Babylonian civilization and it was subsequently advanced by the Greeks. Originally derived from astronomical observations, astrology spun off the path of science and empirical observation during Isaac Newton's time.
But, going back to pre-scientific times, astrology was as real as it got. A precursor to astronomy, astrologers worked with facts that seemed apparent at the time. We have to give it some credit when considering the context.
Astrology sought to explain the nature of people in a time when humans were only vaguely aware of how hereditary and environmental influences affected their lives. The first concepts of astrology were based in the "facts" of the time—the universe was small, earth was at its center, the stars were part of a fixed sphere, the planets were imbued with deistic qualities, and an unknown force from these bodies certainly influenced humans at the exact moment of birth. In the sky, ancient man saw formations of animals and human figures and assigned them qualities. He split the sky into zones of the zodiac. He made attempts to define himself in terms of these assigned qualities. He zoned the sky into "houses." The rules of astrology were (and still are) completely arbitrary, based on symbolism instead of experimentation or statistics.
The foundation of horoscopes and astrological charts is a set of rules about how to decipher the locations of planets, the sun, and the moon in the sky at the time of important events. The astrologer will undertake hours of complex mathematics to derive a detailed horoscope. This framework, however, is flawed. There is no discernible influence of celestial bodies on humans. Therefore, all the complicated number crunching in the world makes no difference because the conclusion is nonsense. Garbage in: Garbage out.
Proponents have no plausible explanation for how astrology might work. Various natural mechanisms have been proposed, but physically measurable forces fail because astronomers can demonstrate that they are too small to be significant. Therefore, astrologers must resort to some unknown entity. Whenever you have to resort to “insert supernatural here,” your concept is no longer a scientifically testable hypothesis.
Here’s an admission of that:
I need no theory of the birth chart in order to interpret it, merely an awareness that people with Mars in X and Venus in Y tend to present in similar ways. This observation is not a theory, any more than is the observation that people tend to cry out in pain when bricks are dropped on their feet. Neither does every problem need a theory before it can be solved […]. I am hungry. I eat. What theory has taken place here? (M. Harding, http://www.astrozero.co.uk/astroscience/harding.htm).
No theory there, just mumbo jumbo. Astrologers resort to anecdotes as evidence to boost claims their system works. Scientists may use anecdotes as a guide for what to pursue through a more systematic process, but on their own, anecdotes are too prone to the distortion of human perception and memory.
So, we are left with their assurances that it works. They can’t explain how, but they know it works.
I don’t know why astrology works, any more than Sir Isaac did. But I can assure you that it does work. The pattern that the planets made at the moment of your birth—that is, your birth chart or horoscope – describes your tendencies, abilities, challenges and potential. It doesn’t predict your fate, though it does make some fates more easily achievable than others. The exact shape of your destiny, I believe, is up to you (R. Orion, Astrology for Dummies, p. 10).
Well, at least we get a bit of control over our destiny. That works great as an “out” if the astrologers’ predictions fail to pan out.
Religion? A Strong Resemblance
Astrology has various religious aspects. After two millennia, basically the same rules apply to astrology/religion, unchanged by newer knowledge. In spite of evidence that shows the original explanations regarding the universe and man's place in it are now radically different, proponents refuse to discard the old rules. To attract and keep followers, astrology appeals to a mystique where explanations are based on faith in spiritual or magical powers and various mystical concepts. Since natural explanations fail, famous astrologers will declare: "Astrology is truth!" and thus do not need proof or a coherent theory.
The twinklings of the fixed stars from without our solar system are the pulsations of spiritual impulses sent forth by the guardians of the Greater Mysteries; and the Mercurians, the Gods of Wisdom, send out similar impulses pertaining to the lesser mysteries, hence Mercury twinkles like a fixed star (M. Heindel, Simplified Scientific Astrology, http://www.rosicrucian.com/ssa/ssaeng01.htm).
Oh really? I must have missed that part in Cosmos.
There is a distinct tone of "sciencey-ness" to astrology. Practitioners will call it "scientific" based on the methodological, careful and systematic use of calculations and real astronomical position data. (Never mind the various natural laws these calculations utterly disregard.) They consider "research" to mean consulting tables and the rules.
Astrology is an unworkable, failed theory. Its predictions are so imprecise that they are difficult to test. Astrologers have not provided an acceptable, natural basis of why humans should be so influenced by celestial conditions at a particular time. The astrological paradigm has failed to contribute any knowledge to the social sciences. Imagine how USEFUL such a theory could be, and yet…it isn’t at all. Except to those who benefit from the feeling of a semblance of control over their affairs.
At no time would a scientist say that a cause simply did not matter so long as he believed it to be true. This is what astrologers have done—exhibiting a clear indication that astrology stands today as a belief system; it is not scientific, it is a pseudoscience.
The next time some sciencey astrologer tries to commandeer the credibility of science for their nonsense charts and predictions, just laugh. It’s all you can do. And NEVER EVER say “astrology” when you mean “astronomy” because that ticks off the genuine scientists.
References and further reading
Abell, G. 1981. Astrology, In Science and the Paranormal (Abell & Singer, eds.), Scribners, p. 70-94.
Carroll, R. T. 2003. Astrology, In The Skeptic's Dictionary, John Wiley & Sons, p. 34-36.
Hines, T. 2003. Pseudoscience and the Paranormal, 2nd ed., Prometheus Books.
Kurtz, P. and A. Fraknoi (1996) Scientific tests of astrology do not support its claims, In The Outer Edge (Nickell, Karr and Genoni, eds.) CSICOP, p. 36-38.
Orion, R. 2007. Astrology for Dummies, Wiley.
Plait, P. 2002. Bad Astronomy, John Wiley & Sons.