It’s Not Rocket Science

Tuesday August 6th 2013

No. Really. Astrology is not science.

I know this won’t come as a surprise to you, because, well, obviously it’s not science. Astrologers use some scientific data, like the position of the planets at a particular time, and often some good statistics, but you could never do a double blind test on astrology. How would you work that one out? Too many factors and too much complexity are involved.

I do have hypotheses about particular configurations or placements, which I test by looking at a lot of charts and talking to a lot of people. That is sort of scientific but definitely not rigorous enough to be a science. However, psychology, which certainly fancies itself as a science, works in a similar way.

And when it comes to actually reading a chart, the number of factors and possibilities is too large to dissect and go through step by step. An astrologer reading charts for people or events needs to allow her intuition to work. Learning to listen to that intuition, filtering out personal prejudices and received opinions, is absolutely key.

For me, this often happens in conversation. The truth reveals itself. The chart opens out like a flower and suddenly everything works. This is far closer to how writers describe writing stories than to science. And interestingly, I’ve talked to day traders on the stock market who work in the same way, because again they are calculating too many factors simultaneously to make a rational decision. It has to be intuitive. Sometimes it takes a night for me to sleep on it.

The poet William Blake in conversation with
astrologer and artist John Varley by John Linnell

A few years ago, Richard Dawkins, my famous neighbour (actually he lives several streets away), made a television programme entitled Enemies of Reason, in which he attempted to debunk “fringe” interests such as astrology. The test he came up with was hilarious. He got people to read a very short Sun sign horoscope for that day and decide if it fitted them. You can guess the results…. but since that’s not a test of astrology anyway, what was the point?

Dawkins obviously hasn’t got the time to, you know, do anything as facile as study the subject. The full interview with the astrologer Neil Spencer that was used for that programme has found its way onto the web. It was cannibalised and edited: the purpose of the programme was not to shine light on astrology, but to bolster Dawkins argument that astrology is charlatanry.

If Dawkins argument against astrology is so strong, he should, of course, be able to make it in the face of real astrology. But he couldn’t: here’s the full uncut interview.

So I was amused to see that Donna Cunningham has written a piece just this week prompted by a similar TV show in the States, Still Ticked Off By The Debunkers.

Dawkins exactly fits the description of a pseudo-sceptic, defined by sociologist Marcello Truzzi back in 1987 thus:

  • Denying, when only doubt has been established
  • Double standards in the application of criticism
  • The tendency to discredit rather than investigate
  • Presenting insufficient evidence or proof
  • Assuming criticism requires no burden of proof
  • Making unsubstantiated counter-claims
  • Counter-claims based on plausibility rather than empirical evidence
  • Suggesting that unconvincing evidence provides grounds for completely dismissing a claim

I offer you this definition because it might come in useful some time. You know when you find yourself – probably against your better judgment – engaged in a debate about astrology. Just remind yourself that explaining astrology to a pseudo-sceptic is like trying to explain economics to someone who’s just heard of money – and thinks it’s silly. You’re never going to get anywhere because their argument is ideological, not rational.

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  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I watched the Dawkins-Spencer programme, and I thought what a shame it was that Spencer couldn’t have just come out and said, “Actually, horoscopes are extremely inaccurate and have a very limited usefulness, you really have to study the individual charts”. But of course, Dawkins, swift as a weasel, would have replied, “Oh, so horoscopes are useless, are they? So you astrologers with Star Sign columns are all frauds after all!” Even so, changing the focus to chart examination would have been a good opportunity to stick it to the man, but it was wasted.

    • Christina says:

      I thought he was pretty good in the circs, but it is a problem that he has to defend those weekly scopes in the Observer because he was writing them at the time!

  3. Anonymous says:

    Psychology fancies itself a science because it uses the scientific method which is a way of testing hypothesis to see if there is a measurable effect. The difference is you just make up in your mind what supports a hypothesis or not, that’s nothing like psychology.

    Astrology is nothing more than conformation bias wrapped up in a few authoritative looking charts and numbers. I can predict the next election by judging the statistics of how many people died while fishing but if the two are not linked then just because I used some numbers doesn’t make it any more correct.

    Defending Astrology and stating that Dawkins uses invalid argument doesn’t make Astrology any more legitimate either. I do think Astrology is silly, but that’s not a reason to not believe it, I don’t believe in it because of the lack of evidence, the same is the case with God which is rather more a rational argument than ideological.

    • Anonymous says:

      I agree that Dawkins may have cherry-picked one side of Astrology to demonstrate his point, but your argument that it works because it works seems a bit of a cop-out. If it did work it could be measured and validated under scientific conditions. To me if I just read a chart and matched up some predictions it would tell me anything, the same as tarot card readings, I’d have to delude myself into believing and convincing others of my results.

    • Christina says:

      I’m not confused. The reason Dawkins choice of what to test was stupid is that he was not testing astrology but one day of a daily Sun sign column in a newspaper. That’s the equivalent of testing the whole of Western medical practice by giving some people a sugar pill and asking them how they feel afterwards.

      Astrology is better than making nonsense up because it works. If you don’t believe it works, try it and see. Try it on yourself. Read some books. Make some judgements. I dare you.

    • Anonymous says:

      You seem to confuse and dismiss any criticism out of hand as a pseudo-sceptic argument when in reality to state that Astrology has a lack of any scientific evidence is a perfectly fine criticism as long as it is acknowledged that this does not make it not true, it just makes it extremely unlikely. If Astrology cannot in any way be proved under scientific conditions, what makes it any better than just making nonsense up? If Astrology is indistinguishable from making predictions up on the spot then why believe there is any effect at all? Arguments of: “You just don’t understand Astrology…” aren’t really good enough.

    • Christina says:

      Dear Anonymous – see definition of pseudo sceptic.

  4. Elektrikgypsy says:

    Do I go to the trouble of addressing the points in the previous comment, or do I hold to my resolution not to waste time arguing with strangers who will never, ever modify their opinion, and go and have a nice cup of tea instead?

    Hmm. Tough decision.

    • Anonymous says:

      In this case those particular means to assess and understand things aka ‘science’ has been the best means of understanding and assessing natural phenomena in history, these aren’t just any random means of inspection, they’re the best we have and consequently have advanced the human race to where it is today.

      Thousands of people used to use blood-letting in the middle ages as for all kind of ailments that it had no effect on, just because a lot of people believe one thing doesn’t give it credence. I understand your point but I still maintain that it doesn’t matter if there’s a culinary basis for something or not as culinary methods have never been used to test the validity of a phenomenon, it’s irrelevant Science says something about its validity while cooking doesn’t.

    • Elektrikgypsy says:

      No, Anonymous, my non-sequitur is a bit of an argument.

      Things ‘work’ in many ways and at many levels. Like food.

      I was hoping by using my ‘culinary’ reference to use absurdist shock to invite the person I was chatting with to reconsider their premises, that a a practice or transaction or process ‘cannot possibly work’ if it cannot meet a particular means of inspection that hopes to assess and understand it.

      Astrology clearly works. Thousands of intelligent people devote their lives to the study and use of it, and millions consult them. This makes astrologers consultants, not scientists, and like many other kinds of consultant, they use clues, data and correspondences to help them interpret complex scenarios involving many variables. And clients pay them or offer some other form of value, because the consultation was informative and helpful.

      In this respect, it’s just as meaningful to say there’s no scientific basis for it as there is to say there’s no culinary one.

    • Anonymous says:

      Your argument is a bit of a non-sequitur. Which lends more authority to determining whether a cure for aids is effective: a culinary basis for that cure, or a scientific one. The reason why a person would argue it has no scientific basis is because this means it is not evidence based and probably doesn’t work, who cares if something is culinary based, it doesn’t mean anything.

    • Christina says:

      I’m borrowing that one.

    • Elektrikgypsy says:

      Milk? Sugar?

      And once we’ve had a nice sit down and maybe some music, we can go back to adding value to our lives and those whose lives we touch.

      Last time someone said to me “There’s no scientific basis for Astrology” I replied “There’s no culinary basis for it either”. It was a short conversation, as I recall.

    • Christina says:

      Oh – OK I’ll just join you then.

  5. Carl Karas says:

    “it is impossible to defeat an ignorant man in an argument” Oscar Wilde. The pseudo-skeptic list is especially nice.

    The problem I have with psychology is that it thinks all the answers come from the individual, and none from society at large.

    I think one day astrology will be considered a science- maybe it’s not so far off either- things are happening so fast.

    Always inspired by your blogs- thanks!

  6. Dawkins uses simplistic arguments which appeal to people’s emotional fear of the unknown and bolster their belief in the power of their rational minds over everything.

    “If we can’t see it it doesn’t exist and we can all agree that we can’t see it, right? Ipso facto it doesn’t exist.”

  7. Anonymous says:

    Having ‘known’ from an early age that psychic phenomena exists and that things like astrology (which btw like Chinese medicine and many other things has been around much longer than science), and having had supernatural experiences myself, I feel kind of sorry for skeptics and people such as Hawkings. How can someone so intelligent be so closed-minded? IMO he might be smart, but he can’t be that smart.

  8. Elektrikgypsy says:

    Also worth considering that the word ‘science’ means different things to different people. It has several definitions, and in fact these vary depending on which dictionary you consult. Within each of these, the words necessary to define science are equally malleable and elusive, and open to interpretation. Astrology could certainly qualify as a science by some dictionary definitions.

    In terms of strict scientific protocol, the sharp stick most often thrust inaccurately at Astrology in general, one has to find processes and hypotheses that can be tested this way without fundamentally undermining them. Or find elements of them that can be. And over the years I’ve seen reports of countless enquiries of this sort in the ‘esoteric’ world. Many scientists are fascinated by aspects of it – or practice them – though tend to be careful about associating themselves with taboo subject matter, as credibility is everything when it comes to attracting funding for their mainstream projects. Which is where scientific fundamentalism comes in! 😉

    I’ve often thought horary astrology would be a good place to demonstrate statistically significant outcomes. The lost keys aren’t behind the downstairs basin *because* a particular planet is aspected to another in a certain house; this is the science of correspondences, not cause/effect. It has a different protocol. If ‘Anonymous’ can predict the outcome of the election using data from fishing deaths to 3 std deviation from the mean roughly once a week over a period of say, 400 years, then I’d say there must be a useful correspondence. Not a causal one, unless the fishermen were presidential candidates; but a useful indicator. And though I don’t consider myself to be an Astrologer, a Useful Indicator is, in my most humble opinion, quite a good thing for Astrology to actually be.

  9. Anonymous says:

    I suppose it’s useless to compare astrology to science, because the twain shall never meet.

    And really : WHO CARES ???????????

    If scientists like mr. Dawkins think they are the only ones who use their reason to interpret the exact data available in the Univers, than I can only pity them for their narrowmindedness, because they will only use their reason and astrologers use their reason and ……..


    Who is more allround then ???


  10. Anonymous says:

    I’m a different “Anonymous” (haven’t figured out how to register with a user name – my mind hasn’t been too sharp since Neptune conjuncted my 3 Pisces Sun), but what struck me about Mr High and Mighty Anonymous above is, if he thinks astrology is hokum, wtf is he doing here on this site?

  11. Anonymous says:

    It’s me 3 Pisces Anonymous again. I’ve been searching without much luck for information about Chiron conjunct Lilith in synastry. I’ve found articles on both Chiron and BMLilith, but nothing that talks about the effect of this conjunction on individuals in a relationship. Can anyone steer me in the right direction?

  12. Hi, Christina, thanks for the link to my article. Though it’s seemingly a “coincidence” that we both wrote about skeptics and debunkers at the same time, to me its a reflection of the transiting Uranus-Pluto-Mars T-square.

    As always, what you’ve written is insightful and enjoyable. I’ve added a link to this post in mine. Donna Cunningham

  13. Isy Aweigh says:

    Your method of examining lots of charts and talking to lots of people to discover useful correspondences is scientific. It’s called “the empirical method of scientific study.” The double-blind studies that wouldn’t work are called “the scientific method of scientific study”, which looks tautological but isn’t.

    The rise of the term “scientific method” has left most people thinking that any other method isn’t scientific. The word science just means knowledge. Let’s think about that for a minute 🙂

    • Christina says:

      Your view is also very well-informed I happen to know. Maybe my problem is that I just don’t want to be a member of any science club.

    • Isy Aweigh says:

      “One of the reasons I do this is to counter one strand of astrological thinking which says that if you’ve read something in a book then it must be true.” Wonderful point 🙂

      You’d be lumping ita lso with psychology, anthropology and sociology, in which I’ve read hilarious verbal tap-dances around the activities of the numinous 🙂 I’d accept astrology as a “soft science” along with those others, but I wouldn’t dream of trying to change your better-informed view.

    • Christina says:

      It’s true astrology is the systematic study of a body of knowledge in the strict use of the world science. But to label it a science is misleading because then you’re bundling it in with zoology, astro-physics etcetera. I think the Enlightenment thinkers were right to see it as distinctly different. Like it or not, astrology is dealing with the numinous. We are attempting to talk and understand the gods, not just to explain the mechanics of the universe.

    • Christina says:

      It is ish, but I’d never claim that it was infallible or that it arrived at an absolute truth and you could never really test this in a lab. But then was aspirin ever tested? I arrive at a probability – now that really is science speak. One of the reasons I do this is to counter one strand of astrological thinking which says that if you’ve read something in a book then it must be true.

  14. Isy Aweigh says:

    I’m friends with some thinking atheists and it’s been an education all around. Without going into the well-schooled intellectual patiality — sometimes sinking to lack of integrity — which your famous neighbor is such a fan of, it’s worth noting that their science-based arguments are based on scientific principles that are hundreds of years old. The science describing the interaction of forces and bodies has come a long way since Newton, and in fact the correspondences of astrology are intriguingly well described by basic principles of quantum physics — the most advanced and intellectually demanding scientific discipline of our time. As is homeopathy, another subject Dawkins et alia like to froth about.

    21st century, anyone? Care to join the rest of us here? 🙂

    In terms of social justice and public policy, the atheist humanists are invaluable forces for good. But their science is hopelessly backward.

    • Isy Aweigh says:

      True. Not without some horrifyingly complex, 10-dimensional algorithms.

      In any case, speaking as one Renaissance-y sort of person to another, your approach to what could be a pile of overwhelming potentialities is so coherent and sane that labeling it is probably a side issue. Your coming from the artistic side is perfectly germane and appropriate for you, as my saying “ooo look, quantum forces at play” is appropriate for me.

      I can well understand not wanting to belong to the science club. I have to visit there, but don’t make my home in it.

    • Christina says:

      I suppose eventually there may be a material explanation for why the planets have influence, but why should, say, an aspect between Venus and Pluto mean tons of money and scary woman and maybe even obsessive love all at the same time? That will never have a really satisfactorily scientific explanation.

  15. Mary says:

    Maybe it is the “-logy” suffix that makes the pure science types get so nervous, as if we were trying to infringe upon their territory. I will continue to think of astrology as an art, not a science. All these labels are petty and confounding. Although, how can we have decent discourse without defining our terms? Aw, life gets so complicated when basic respect falls by the wayside!

  16. RajeevBlyIn says:

    The taste of pudding is in eating it. Astrology is a super science. There are many things which science is unable to comprehand. Understanding life is never possible for them. It is a material world and so is the science. Many people believe in physics and chemistry. Do not forget Biology. No scientists can say how many fruits a tree will bear in a year.

  17. Elektrikgypsy says:

    I agree with Mary about the -logy bit of astrology, which only really indicates the study or even discussion of a subject. But this thread has piqued something in me, and now I’m really wondering why astrology does come in for such regular vindictiveness or mockery, and so often from individuals using ‘science’ as weaponry and armour.

    I know quite a few genuine scientists who are fine with astrology and a few who practice it, so it’s not some universal mutually exclusive club. I wonder if particular individuals find something threatening about what they think astrology might be able to do, and attack it with something they think science does? So it becomes a rant about something deeper, using astrology and science as personalised representations?

    • Christina says:

      I am sure this is true. The visceral reaction to astrology is particular. The other group who really go weird about it are certain Christians. I think it’s because on one level we are talking about or with God or gods. It’s the other world behind the curtain that freaks them out – and I think it’s because — being simplistic here — it reminds people of the other world inside themselves. Mystery without; mystery within.

  18. Anonymous says:

    “No. Really. Astrology is not science.” “…but you could never do a double blind test on astrology. How would you work that one out? Too many factors and too much complexity are involved.”

    The double blind test does not by a long shot define Science. I think of 30 plus thousand years of Empirical observations of the heavens by our earlier ancestors and wonder what sort of fey stance this is on the part of an ‘Astrologer?’

    Can we expect as much flippancy in your future comments?

    And Richard Dawkins? This chap is a Scientist? This is the best example you could come up with?

    Perhaps a few scatolgical comments on the current Jup/Pluto opposition is in order as well.

    – El Neptunio

    • Christina says:

      “Science” as we understand it now was only made up a few hundred years ago, so I don’t know what you’re so cross about. Before that we talked about “natural philosophy”.

      Astrology is a kind of natural philosophy – but that is a whole other discussion.

  19. Anonymous says:

    I believe R Dawkins came to fame from his debunking of people’s ‘irrational’ beliefs, so I guess it’s in his interest to keep it up, as he probably makes a nice living from it, along with the attendant fame/notoriety and fans… cynic, moi?

    What’s odd about him is that he seems as zealous, if not fanatical, about his own convictions as those he accuses of blindly following their faith. As Jung (who incidentally was a fan of astrology) said: “everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” I wonder how interested he is in his own behaviour, as opposed to that of others?

    Maybe ‘not knowing’ is the harder option?

    • Anonymous says:

      Agreed. Before Dawkins there was PSICOP and that ‘faux scientist’ Michael Shermer. The list of non-informed/malformed minds in the sceptical enquirer genre seems endless.

      Of course, Astrology is a Science. And currently so much more than.

      As for being ‘cross.’ I’m at the node of the cross.

      And as for Natural Philosophy, it is an unnatural and antiquated term that hearkens back to a time of mythical splendour in the eyes of many Englishmen.

      Like Newton said, “On the shoulders of giants.”

      You could have used a real scientist, perhaps Percy Seymour? – As a better example, that is.

      Tra-la and Exeunt.
      -El Neptunio

  20. Sabrina says:

    I also find surprising the fuss some people make trying to debunk Astrology. Live and let live. I enjoy it and it makes my life a lot more colorful and interesting. Is just another way to see things, to explain the events around us.
    I don’t know much about scientific philosophy, but wasn’t Thomas Kuhn who said that the same experiment done by two different scientists could yield very different results? because their own expectations would ‘filter’ the data produced? I’m oversimplifying here. But we see what we want to see, don’t we?

    I’d just love to see someone like you or Donna to read the bunker’s chart and tell him something ‘interesting’…I think there is a story about Cheiro doing something like that…

  21. Anonymous says:

    I am yet another anon.

    The internet based astrologers have been an eye-opener for myself. There was once when I was younger a point where I wanted to be an astrologer. Over the years I have read loads of books on the subject. Then came the internet and I was able to read astrological blogs. This has put me off the subject – this and older wisdom and experience.

    There is a thing that stephen fry said (he hates astrology btw) that was that a scientific person when asked how something works and that person does not know would shrug and state ‘I do not know’. However, a religious person would always know and say how and why something works. I think the point is that a religious person cannot face being wrong, cannot admit to oneself or allow others to think that they do not know. A ego trip if you will. All explanations are not tested or proven. Not only this no explanation can be disproved either – a win win situation for the egotists. If its not this for an explanation then it must be this and if not that its that other. And so-on it goes. Yes astrologers are like this. Its a religion.

    Even when data is presented that is astrological based and fairly rigorously tested but contradicts the ‘modern’ and ‘popular’ interpretations that is also rejected. This is despite it being pointed out in chart after chart that the modern internet astrologer profiles – that data is rejected.

    Have you also noticed that they all have a different interpretation of the same event/aspect. Whose right? they actually shoot each other in the foot when they do this as clearly ‘perhaps’ only one can be right – maybe!!

    I have seen online astrologers launch attacks on people who have been met in real life on their ‘blog’ but behind the persons back. While at the same time using the ‘blog’ more as some cheap trashy magazine/newspaper.

    Its all about appearence – get the site looking nice.

    No – a complete put-off and I would not – could not trust any interpretation from one.

  22. Valerie says:

    Hi – Interesting site and interesting questions. I have an entry on my site called “Astrology as a Science: A Case” which you might find interesting.

    I’ve taken a philosophy of science class and successfully stumped the prof and the class with the following point. Karl Popper, a leading philosopher of science, created a criteria for determining what is a science. He pitted science against astrology as an easy example, but he also pitted science against Marxism. He created a falsification test – only something that can be falsified could be deemed a science, he said. (Popper, _Conjectures and Refutations_)

    So I presented this possibility to the class. It’s something I’m working on, but it will take much learning and work on my part to achieve. Hypothesis: if one can deduce the personality and life events from the natal chart, then one should be able to deduce the natal chart from the personality and the life events.

    People get confused when I say this. They say “do mine!” But they don’t realize that I’m talking months of deductive work – monitoring their personality traits, lining up major events, etc. I wouldn’t be able to do it from nothing, I’d need the date and location and my task would be to deduce the exact time of birth. But astrologers do “correct” birth times and I’m always training myself to get this skill right.

    By all accounts though, successfully deducing birth times by use of astrology is an empirical, verifiable and falsifiable test. If it passes that test, then any student of Karl Popper’s at any rate, I argue, would have to conclude with me that astrology is a science.

    • Christina says:

      Yes, I do rectifications in this way. But with those, I can never verify if the birth time I have deduced is the right one because the birth time is always unknown in the first place! I suppose the thing to do would be to hide the birth times for a number of charts and then do the rectifications and see how often one got it right. The tricky thing with these is that there are various triggers to life events – could be a transit, could be a progression, could be a solar arc or could be a solar return. These last I am finding very interesting at the moment.