Astrology and the Skeptics: An Open Letter to Dr. Rebekah Higgitt

Royal Observatory, Greenwich, UK

Royal Observatory, Greenwich, UK

(Astrology Explored)

Dr. Rebekah Higgitt,
Curator of History of Science and Technology
National Maritime Museum and Royal Observatory
Greenwich, UK

Dear Dr. Higgitt,

Recently in an BBC television show, two scientists proclaimed that “astrology was rubbish” prompting an article by you, asking whether “we should debunk astrologers more respectfully”. I am fascinated by your assertion that “Astrology as a scientific hypothesis has been put to the test and found wanting”.

There are many semantic holes in this assertion that only serves to muddy the waters.

Astrology is not a “scientific hypothesis.” It is a practice, much like the practice of medicine, so straight off the bat we are in trouble.

Maybe what you mean to say is “that the principles of astrology, when held to the light of scientific inquiry fails to yield reproducible results”.

Is that what you mean Dr. Higgitt?

Because if it is, then we run into problems again and that is there are studies that do yield reproducible results.

The most famous of these is the “Mars Effect” in which prominent athletes show a higher frequency of of Mars placed in certain sectors of their chart than statistical average.

For those unfamiliar with the astrological definition of Mars, the red planet in astrology relates to aggressiveness and competition.

Despite the fact that certain of those in the skeptic community claim to have disproved the effect, it was found that those involved with this inquiry disallowed some of Gauguelin’s data and introduced other data with a result that was more favorable to their position.

Gauquelin found that people of certain professions tend to have the same planets in these critical segments with a greater frequency than statistical average. Not only that, but he also found an effect which he titled the “theory of eminence” which holds that not only do people established in their chosen fields have a greater than statistical chance average of having those planets in these important fields. The more eminent a person is in their field, the greater the likelihood that those planets will be found in those critical segments. For example, doctors were found to have the planet of Saturn in these critical segments. If you take an average, general practice physician, the chances of he or she having Saturn in that critical position is much less than the chart of a highly prominent physician, one who is frequently published and renowned in their field. In other words, the more prominent you are in your field, the greater the chances you will have the corresponding planet in the critical field of the wheel.

Although scientists find Gauquilin’s findings very disquieting, increasingly sophisticated analysis seems to confirm, rather than disconfirm, certain of the original results. For example, in a 1986 study, the German researcher, Suitbert Ertel, reported: “A reanalysis of Gauquelin professional data using alternative procedures of statistical treatment supports previous Gauquelin results. Frequency deviations from chance expectancy along the scale of planetary sectors differ markedly between professions.” Read more about it at the William James Roots of Consciousness website.

Of course one study does not “prove” the validity of the whole of astrology, but it is far from “found wanting”. So lets look at others.

Carl Jung studied the charts of 453 couples and found that of the happily married couples with the classic aspects, (connections between planets) that indicate the opportunity for a satisfying relationship occurred three times more often than the rate of coincidence.

Jung said of this:

The chances of this actually happening are extremely improbable. Even in the first two cases, the probability works out at 1:100 x 10,000, which means that such a coincidence is to be expected only in one case out of ten million. It is improbable that it would ever happen in anyone’s experience. Yet in my statistical experiment it happened that precisely the three conjunctions stressed by astrological tradition came together in the most improbable way

And then there is this:

On December 6, 2010 Science Daily reports on a study published in the journal Natural Neuroscience that “The season in which babies are born can have a dramatic and persistent effect on how their biological clocks function.”

The experiment provides the first evidence for seasonal imprinting of biological clocks in mammals and was conducted by Professor of Biological Sciences Douglas McMahon, graduate student Chris Ciarleglio, post-doctoral fellow Karen Gamble and two undergraduate students at Vanderbilt University.

While not a study on astrology itself, it comes dangerously close to suggesting that the tropical zodiac, the zodiac based on the position of the Sun as it travels thru the seasons, actually has something behind it.

I could go on, but we don’t have all day here, so let’s move along.

Let’s play devil’s advocate for a minute and look at tests that purport to dispute the validity of astrology.

One such study found online is the NCGR/Berkeley Double-Blind Test of Astrology undertaken by Shawn Carlson and published in 1985. Shawn Carlson concluded that “we are now in a position to argue a surprisingly strong case against natal astrology as practised by reputable astrologers”.

The experiment was designed to test the astrological proposition that:
“the positions of the ‘planets’ (all planets, the Sun and Moon, plus other objects defined by astrologers) at the moment of birth can be used to determine the subject’s general personality traits and tendencies in temperament and behavior, and to indicate the major issues which the subject is likely to encounter”.

In this test volunteers took the California Personality Inventory, was given three horoscope delineations, with only one of which was the written for them, and asked to choose the one that fits their personality, as well as choosing a second choice. Of 83 subjects only 28 chose the horoscope written for them, which was on par with chance.
But wait! To check the subjects ability to self evaluate their personality types the subjects were given three CPI evaluations and asked to pick out their own. In a subject sample even smaller than the first, the subjects did not choose their own personality profile in numbers that were not statistically significant. Calling this result “disappointing” Carlson writes “”if subjects cannot recognise accurate descriptions of themselves at a significant level then the experiment would show a null result however well astrology worked”

Carlson then moves on to the astrologers and ask them to choose the correct CPI out of three to the natal chart of each subject. The astrologers faired no better than chance when the astrologers themselves predicted they could match 50% of the profiles. From this Carlson arrived at the conclusion that astrology failed. But here again is there is a fly in the ointment.

Though Carlson claimed that natal astrology performed no better than chance, a number of authoritative sources including Professor Hans Eysenck of London University (1986) [6]have shown that this conclusion was faulty. Recent evidence now shows that the part of the test that was valid (according to Carlson) shows evidence that favours astrology to a statistically significant level in spite of many disadvantages that the astrologers faced.

And remarkably, Dr. Carlson is not a psychiatrist or psychologist but a mathematician and physicist so he shouldn’t have gotten the numbers wrong. But the study itself was funded by the skeptics group CSICOPS, and for that group, no other conclusion but to declare astrology invalid, is possible.

All people are entitled to their opinions, and if some people prefer to think that astrology is rubbish, scientist or no, that is their right. However, as an astrology blogger friend said “The general opinion of people doesn’t make for good evidence.” To veil opinion with the mantle of scientific certainty is not only self-serving it is just wrong.

So Dr. Higgitt, despite your very nice attempt to debunk us astrologers respectfully, we respectfully submit that we are not in need of debunking. But thanks for the thought.

Image published under a Creative Commons License from Flickr.


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About Beth Turnage

I write about astrology alot. Some people like to read it.
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Beth Turnage says:

A anonymous email sent via contact form said this to me:

Beth, at the bottom of the original article published in Nature magazine, it states that Richard Muller funded the test, no CSICOP. Please be careful with your facts. You are representing astrology and we don’t need to make things difficult for ourselves by jumping to conclusions.

Dear Anonymous,

Never fear. I am very careful with my facts. Robert Currey sites these references on his site. http://www.astrologer.com/tests/carlson.htm#CSI

[2]^Paul Kurtz claimed CSICOP encouraged Carlson to do this project. Richard Muller (CSICOP fellow) funded and guided the experiment. The Editor of the Journal, Nature, which published the experiment, John Maddox (CSICOP fellow). Skeptical Inquirer Vol.33.4 July/Aug 2009

Richard Muller is a CSICOP fellow, Paul Kurtz started and ran the group that now calls themselves The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and CSICOP fellow John Maddox published the study. There are no conclusions jumped to here. Its as plain as day.

Deborah Houlding says:

(This is also a copy of an earlier response I made on the other site, not realising that I should have placed it here. For the sake of context, my response came directly after Rebekkah’s, and so did not consider any other comments made after her reply)
——

Hi Rebekah,
Firstly, you would be the last person that I would be inclined to be critical of, since you don’t present an agenda to obscure the facts and seem inclined towards reporting within the area you are knowledgable in. However I would like to respond to your final comment where you say ” I find it interesting that many astrologers who have commented on my post are happy to admit that there is a severe lack of scientific evidence for astrology, being personally satisfied of its validity.”

That’s not actually the case. There is a severe lack of scientific integrity (not evidence) when it comes to the reporting of scientific studies which investigate elements of this subject. That is why the revised details of studies such as those mentioned here are not usually presented for public awareness, except on astrology websites (which are not then taken seriously). In fact astrologers are very keen to ensure that scientific studies are conducted to scrupulous standards; without distortion of the findings, good or bad. Unfortunately astrologers have to accept a situation which is rooted in entranched bias for the sake of our sanity, but it’s not true that we are happy with the situation, nor do we happily admit that there is a severe lack of scientific evidence, because this isn’t the case (though some astrologers may state that they have so little interest in how “science” chooses to define a subject which is not wholly embraced by science, that they have given up caring).

I always advise new enquirers on this to become aquainted with Dennis Rawlings confessed account of the corruption of CISCOP when investigating astrology (see for example http://www.psicounsel.com/starbaby.html). This gives a reflection of the prejudiuce that is applied to the exmination of the subject. The next question to ask is why do none of the hundreds of science websites that use the Carlson experiments as evidence of astrology having no scientific basis, fail to include any kind of notice of the up-to-date conclusion on that evidence, which has reversed the originally flawed finding, to clarify that the evidence does indeed favour astrology to “a statistically significant level”. ? I would be interested to know of *any* respected science website that gives a fair, honest and up to date account of the Carlson study – it is still being used to support the argument that astrology fails when tested.

Regards
Deb

Jasmine says:

Working astrologers of course amass a huge amount of empirical evidence every day if they use the ephemeris to demonstrate via the natal chart when certain important life events in a subject’s life took place, and also just by noting how closely a subject’s chart correlates to their personality and life experience.

The fact is, astrology is too complex and subtle a science for most of these ‘scientists’ to appreciate. It takes many years of study to reach any level of competence, so expecting these narrow specialists (who notoriously and all too predictably diss opinions of other scientists even in their own fields which don’t accord with their own) to understand how it works on the information they are no doubt using – ie sun sign predictions in newspapers – is like us passing a valid opinion on nuclear fission or brain surgery!

The fact there are a lot of very indifferent astrologers out there – who rely on computer software, a smattering of knowledge, and a gift of the gab – does not help the general cause of astrology to be taken more seriously.

Beth Turnage says:

I think it is fair to say that in any profession the rank of competency goes from incompetent to extremely so. Astrologers are no different. I’m not so sure it is fair to say that this is reason that astrology isn’t taken more seriously. Astrology has been shuttled off into that category of the “mystical” and the “irrational” and therefore not to be trusted by those who label themselves as “scientific” and “rational”.

Beth Turnage says:

Julie,

Thanks. I found it quite strange that Dr. Higgitt found my article was “the first critical statements by an astrologer.” Maybe is she opened her mind she’d here the other voices in the astrological community that are much more articulate than I.

Julie D says:

Wow, Beth, despite your careful and reasonable assertions, Ms Higgitt insists on distortion–could she possibly be this obtuse for real?
You, however, did a great job–thank you
jd

ps read this a while ago and meant to comment earlier–just now found my way back!

Rebekah Higgitt says:

Please note that I responded to this open letter some time ago when it appeared on this site: http://www.astrodispatch.com/2011/01/31/astrology-and-the-skeptics-an-open-letter-to-dr-rebekah-higgitt/

Beth Turnage says:

Dr. Higgitt,

You are right. I had not seen the comment. Astrodispatch is an aggregator, and not many people leave comments there. For the benefit of my readers here is your comment:

“Rebekah Higgitt says:

Thanks for your comments regarding my post. It’s interesting to note that this is really the first set of critical comments that I have had from an astrologer.

If you go back to look at the context in which I made the statement you quote, regarding astrology “as a” scientific hypothesis, you will see that I was referring to the 17th century. Then, astrology was very much considered as such, and various aspects were tested empirically by the circles connected to the early Royal Society. It was at that point that the paths of astrology and natural philosophy – later science – diverged.

I am happy that my statement should stand, notwithstanding the later experiments and quotations that you cite. I find it interesting that many astrologers who have commented on my post are happy to admit that there is a severe lack of scientific evidence for astrology, being personally satisfied of its validity.”

And on my end, I submit several things:

1.) Relying on four centuries old studies that no one has seemed to pried open since then seems a curious way for any scientist to form an opinion. I don’t know of the experiments you site, but certainly things have changed since that time in the way of statistical analysis and experiment design.

2.) Again going back to the “general opinion of people doesn’t make good evidence” argument, your statement that some of my colleagues are personally satisfied of it astrology’s validity just seems a back handed way of saying, “You astrologers are satisfied of your ignorance without critically studying your own claims.” Yes, many astrologers are satisfied from their personal experience that astrology is powerful tool. Certainly you with your experience as an astronomer are satisfied that astronomy is powerful way to describe the Universe. Neither are scientific observations, they are opinions. And while opinions may be a starting point, they are not science.

3.) Not every claim in astrology will be proved valid, but that does not disprove astrology. Not every claim in science is proved valid either and is does not disprove the value of the science investigated. It is the critical analysis of the same, the weighing, the testing that is of value to the human quest of understanding ourselves and the Universe.

Beth Turnage says:

Deb,

Thank you for your comment.

Beth