Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Astrology: a different nonsense than you thought

Some weeks ago, major news media reported that Earth's precession has shifted all of our astrological signs, and also added a thirteenth sign, Ophiuchus.  I wrote on the subject, focusing on the physics of precession.  This time, I will focus more on the nonsense side of things.

I will preface this by noting that astrology is a big deal.  Sometimes people criticize skeptics for focusing on the harmless crazy fringes.  Silly fringe beliefs are things like UFOs, bigfoot, and JFK conspiracies, but astrology is not one of those.  It has a section in nearly every newspaper.  Think about the wasted time and money implied by that. 

When I did research for my post on the physics of precession, I learned two new things that the original media reports got wrong.

I had heard that Ophiuchus should be added to the zodiac because of precession.  But this struck me as wrong, because precession does not change the sun's path through the sky, it only affects its timing.  So I researched and found that Ophiuchus is technically unrelated to precession.  The addition of Ophiuchus is based on the Astronomical Union's conventions for constellation boundaries.  The IAU's conventions are arbitrary, but they more reasonably align with the constellations than do the boundaries drawn by astrologers, which don't even account for precession.

It also struck me as strange that professional astrologers would be ignorant of precession, as assumed by the media stories.  People who just read their horoscopes may be ignorant, but professional astrologers have probably heard it many times.  Professional astrologers also tend to know a lot about the mechanics of observational astronomy, and precession is right up that alley.

So I looked it up and found that most western astrologers consciously use "tropical astrology" which is based on seasons rather than stars.  Their problem is not one of ignorance, but one of irrationality.  There just isn't any rational basis to think that tropical astrology, is any better than sidereal astrology, is any better than assigning horoscopes randomly.

Therefore, it didn't surprise me when astrologers started "debunking" the story, talking about how they knew about precession all along and simply chose to ignore it.  Here is a sample of what they're saying:
The signs of the Zodiac are merely symbols and metaphors that divide the year into 12 different and equal "seasons."
There is no real ram in the sky when Aries begins on March 21st. Wise ancient women and men chose a Ram to symbolize Aries because it represents the initiation of spring.
Astrology is a system of symbols and metaphors designed to help us connect to the universe, just like the words and metaphors found in the various spiritual texts from around the world.
The last point about comparing astrology to religion is a good one.  It's sometimes said that you can distinguish between skepticism of pseudoscience and skepticism of religion, because religion is all about metaphorical and nonscientific truth.  Such a simplistic distinction fails because pseudoscience will also frequently resort to metaphorical and nonscientific truth.  Well I don't know about religion (because I have my skeptic hat on now, not my atheist hat), but when astrology does it, it's rubbish.

And here's a writer who is skeptical of astrology, but calls for a more careful criticism.
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.
I suppose, in the scheme of things, precession is not a significant piece of evidence against astrology.  The real lines of evidence are physics and empirical studies.  Although, empirical studies are problematic to cite, especially on a blog.  Not only am I too lazy to find and cite such a study, it would take a lot more work to verify that it has good methodology, and even more work to avoid cherry-picking.

So I prefer the line of evidence from physics.  There isn't any known force that could possibly allow planets to affect personalities without having a vastly larger affect on things like weather.  But people tend to remember the hits, forget the misses, and think that vague and flattering descriptions of themselves are highly accurate.  The effects of these biases look an awful lot like astrology.

But even though precession is not the major line of evidence against astrology, I still think it's a good story.  Despite being ancient news, it was still interesting enough to bring attention to the question of why we as a society accept this astrology nonsense.  Is it because we think that we're influenced by the stars, or by the position of the earth?  No, even most astrologers think that's nonsense.  Instead astrologers believe in an equally nonsensical system of dividing the seasons into twelve parts, naming each part for a constellation that was not quite behind the sun 3000 years ago, justifying this by giving the names additional symbolic meaning, and then making daily predictions based on people's birthdays.


Anonymous said...

Lately while reading about such news related to astrology (e.g. India's questionable declaration of it being a 'science'), I've sort of dismissed it, thinking "bahh, as if anyone takes this stuff seriously."

Well, you're right in that it's a much more largely accepted phenomenon than someone who's skeptically-minded would anticipate.

I sort of throw it, along with other related (and equally disheartening) news about homeopathic medicine, credulous teachers, and corporate-sustained fear mongering of climate change, into the basket of things that I'd like to keep out of my mind completely less it should drive me into insanity, though it's likely to lead to nothing in the neighborhood of good, as a rational person would define the term.

- Anthony
(We met at LIGO... and I don't have a blogger account.
By the way, keep up the good work on the blog!)

Starry Night Astrology said...

"There isn't any known force that could possibly allow planets to affect personalities without having a vastly larger affect on things like weather. "

The "known force" argument is a weak argument, especially since there are phenomenon like gravity that can not be ascribed to any known force. And I'd like to point out that things like weather have been predicted for hundreds of years by astrology. We know these publications as "farmer's almanacs".

And since you admit you are too lazy to look up the research perhaps it would be best if you do not comment on a subject of which you have a surface understanding. Contrary to the claims of skeptics every where, astrology has not been disproved by scientific studies. I've looked high and low for those published studies and have not found them. What I have found are a few studies that purported to disprove astrology but upon independent review have shown that astrologers perform at a level higher than statistical chance.

If you have any you can cite to support your claim please do so. I'd like to look at them.

miller said...

Starry Night Astrology,

Did you read what I said? I said that blogs are a poor medium to cite studies. There's no point in wasting the effort. If that's what you want, use Google and Wikipedia. Speaking of which, Wikipedia does not speak favorably of the weather predictions in the Farmer's Almanac.

The "known source" is a strong argument, because we have searched for unknown forces, and have pretty tight constraints on how strong they can be. I'm not sure what you mean by saying gravity is not a known force. I'm pretty sure we know about gravity.

Lenoxus said...

Some "tropical" astrologers have proposed renaming the signs so as to clarify that they don't think the actual constellations have anything to do with it, but such proposals haven't succeeded. (To be fair, a lot of standards get get stuck into sub-optimal configurations, like QWERTY or the American measurement system.)

Furthermore, there are a few astrologers out there who recognize the nonsense of celestial-objects-but-only-visible-ones each having an equal causative effect on human events. Instead, they suggest that there are predictable underlying patterns in human affairs, and the universe itself just happens to be a giant machine helpfully arranged in ways that indicate these patterns, like the way a roadmap can help you orient yourself. Under this model, the actual existence of stars and planets is technically irrelevant, but God-or-Whoever decided to give us this complex kind of map. Plus, the discovery of a given celestial object is itself an event infouenced by these underlying patterns, so there's nothing wrong with a planet having no effect until its discovery; 1846 is exactly when Neptunish things were supposed to starting happening, according to the Great Cosmic Agenda. So, yeah, still nonsense, but hypothetically more plausible.

Starry Night is wrong about the "independent" reviews of studies. The actual pattern is something like this: astrologers claim they can accurately link personality profiles to horiscopes, and when tested, they make all sorts of notes about astral angles causing bushy eyebrows and retrograde quasars causing athletic ability and whatnot. Then, the tests are failed – but for two or three of the traits, the astrologers seemed to be right on the money,beating chance by wide margins! Looks like most of us have no use for astrology, but if you're a Pisces, then the astrologers will be able to consistently guess so! Of course, this would happen no matter what. It might be fun to do a large-scale test of the accuracy of a thoroughly fictionalized form of astrology, and compare the results to the ones for "real" astrology. I'm confident you'd be able to get something like the "Mars Effect" to be shown (though of course you wouldn't be able to predict as much).