Astrology and the Skeptics: The Evidence of Things Unseen

(Astrology Explored) My friend Matthew Currie recently challenged the good people at the James Randi Educational Foundation to provide citations for their claims in their instructional booklet “Astrology: Science or Superstition”. In support of Matthew’s challenge I’m presenting the comment that turned into an email exchange between me and one skeptic on the subject of astrology for your consideration.

The skeptic, Shawn, starts off in a comment to one of my blog posts:

I read the article you directed me to. Honestly, I found it confusing. Let’s go back to the beginning. My birthday is July 17th. Please tell me my sign and please tell me why (astronomically) that is my sign.
Thank you,
 Shawn

You wrote, “The sun was 24 Degrees 28 Seconds of the tropical zodiac sign Cancer
on July 17, 1978.”

Great- that’s what I thought. My question was: how is my sign determined? The
answer is: on my birthday, the sun was “in” the constellation Cancer. Yes?

My Answer:

No.

The Sun on the date given, July 17, 1978 was in in the area that we call Cancer in the tropical zodiac.

For those that still aren’t clear what the tropical zodiac is based on, we start the tropical zodiac on the Vernal Equinox, most commonly called the first day of spring. The sun advances roughly one degree per day. Therefore, degrees 1 to 30 is called Aries, 31 to 60, Taurus, 61 to 90 Gemini91 t0 120, Cancer and so on.

His Answer:

So I’m a Cancer, but that is not related to the constellation called Cancer. ?
If the answer is yes, then you’re saying the stars are unrelated or minimally related to “Western astrology.” Yes?

My Answer

Yes, in terms of the tropical compared to the sidereal zodiac.

From the referenced article:

And despite the fact that the tropical zodiac does not align with the constellations of today, the characteristics of we associate with those zodiac signs hold true today, suggesting that it is the movement of the sun, not the constellations themselves that give each of the zodiac signs their special joie de vivre.

His Answer:

OK, so you’re saying the stars are unrelated. It is the sun that matters. So then what differentiates someone born on July 17th and someone born on January 17th? If the stars are unrelated, then the sun is just “in the sky” on both dates. It’s position makes no difference.

My answer:

I’m not sure what you mean by “the sun’s position in the sky makes no difference.” That seems like a confusing statement. Of course, its position is important. We just don’t use the constellations as markers of this position.

Now to answer you question about the difference between a Cancer and a Capricorn (in the tropical zodiac, of course) there are similarities and differences. At the end of this email I included the text of a blog post I wrote in 2009 that briefly covers this topic.

There seems to be some basis in science for the differences in personality based on the time of year someone is born:

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/12/101205202510.htm

Of course, it’s just one study, and was not intended to connect with astrology, but it is intriguing.

His Answer:

On the difference between Cancer and Capricorn. I didn’t mean astrologically, I meant astronomically. I have to believe in the basis for astrology before I even consider astrology itself.

My answer:

You seem stuck on your original premise that the constellations are the basis of astrology. Your premise is not supported by historical sources.

In ancient times astronomer/priests observed the heavens. First they observed the movements of the sun, moon, Venus, Mercury, Jupiter and Saturn, the “traveling stars” and observed that movements of these “stars” corresponded to events that happened on the earth. The zodiac was a later addition to astrological practice.

By 2300 BCE the Akkadians, one of two dominant civilizations in Mesopotamia were writing down their astronomical and astrological observations on clay tablets. But the zodiac as we know it did was not part of these practices. That was a later addition to the practice of astrology. As civilizations rose and fell, astronomical and astrological practices changed and evolved. On the development of astrology as we know it Rob Hand writes: (http://www.astro.com/people/hand_his_e.htm)

“An interesting question about which there is much controversy is what kind of zodiac were the Mesopotamians using? In the earlier material they simply recorded planets as being so many degrees from a star.

“19 from the Moon to the Pleiades;
17 from the Pleiades to Orion;
14 from Orion to Sirius. . .”
This is de facto a sidereal observation, but it is not a zodiac! A zodiac requires a fiducial point, a point on the circle from which measurements are made. Also normally a zodiac has some fixed number of regular divisions such as the twelve signs of the modern zodiacs, the twenty-seven lunar mansions of the Hindu lunar zodiac and so forth. But all of these early observations are like this one in using individual stars as markers for positions.

Van der Waerden argues that the evolution of astrology went through three phases. The first phase consists of the omen lore that we have already described. The second phase is closely related to this but has a zodiac in the modern sense, twelve 30-degree signs. There is no personal horoscopy in this middle level, but great attention is paid to the transits of Jupiter through the signs at the rate of approximately one sign per year. From this is clearly descended the Chinese practice of assigning each year to a zodiacal sign, and probably also the system of annual profections in later horoscopic astrology. There are also of course no houses of any kind. Van der Waerden dates this middle phase as being from about 630 to 450 B.C.E. The zodiac at this point is clearly a sidereal one and its ayanamsha is at least close to the Fagan-Allen value.

The third phase is horoscopic astrology. Various ancient sources mention “Chaldeans” who cast birth charts for various persons, including Diogenes Laertius who said that according to Aristotle, a Chaldean forecast Socrates’ death from his birth chart, and that Euripides’ father also had his son’s chart read getting a forecast of his brilliant career. The reference to Chaldeans of course refers to astrologers and makes it clear that the art in this period was completely associated with late Babylonians, i.e., Chaldeans.”

All things change and grow. Astrology is no exception.

His Answer:

I do like learning about history, so thanks for that.I don’t think I’m stuck…I’m still trying to figure out the astronomical basis for YOUR astrology (not the Akkadians or Sumerians, etc.). Can you state that (briefly)?

My answer:

What? The movements of the sun, moon, etc aren’t astronomical enough?

I’ve explained the tropical zodiac, I’ve shown that the constellations are not the basis for astrology. I’ve talked briefly about how the humans observed the movements of the planets and correlated them with events on earth.

I believe I’ve given enough brief explanations of how Western astrology works, so that if you were truly interested in the subject we could move forward in our discussions. Let’s be honest. If you aren’t stuck, you are just playing word games with me.

When and if you really want to learn something about astrology, you can read my and many other people’s websites and blogs. You can even take a class.

His answer:

Honestly, I am not playing games. If you’re willing, we could continue with this question or move on to another.

I understand that the sun (appears to) move. It (appears to) move continuously against the background stars. But I don’t see your how or why you are dividing people into 12 different signs. It would be like someone coming along and dividing the alphabet into thirteen groups, a and b are together, c and d, are together…what would be the basis for that!

If your not willing to answer that question, here’s another. What question are you trying to answer in your astrological pursuits? Is it: who am I? Or: how did I come to be the person that I am? Or: what’s my purpose? Or something else?

My answer:

The sun is an important part of personality but it is not all there is to personality. All the planets have something to say about who you are. Think of it this way. Matter is made of up of particles. But not all particles are the same. There are varying amount of electrons, proton and neutrons in different kinds of matter. They are all still matter, right? Depending on the mix of electrons, protons and neutrons you have different elements. When you add different elements together you get different types of matter. When you add the planets into the mix of personality you get an infinite mix of personalities. Yet a proton is still a proton, an electron is still an electron and so on. So an Aries is still an Aries, a Taurus is still a Taurus. You can expect the different zodiac signs to react to situations in a fairly predictable ways modified, of course by the influences of other planets.

The Sun signs are based on what astrologers call the modalities and the elements. The attached article will explain that more.

Why do I do this? Because astrologers, at least now in this time of history, are the practitioners of last resort. People come to me when they can’t get answers any other way. But let’s not skip ahead. There is a lot of ground to cover before we get there.

His Answer:

I’m glad to see you understand some basic chemistry/physics, ie. protons, neutrons, and electrons.

General question…Why do I have the personality I have? Please don’t answer this question. Instead answer this one: What would a college introductory psychology textbook say on this question- why do have the personality we have?

My answer:

I’m not going to claim any great knowledge base in the science called psychology.

However, it seems, even now that after over a 100 years of study in what we call psychology now there is debate on the subject on what constitutes and creates personality.

I suppose a college level intro course would say that inherited traits from our parents combined with our the naturing/or lack thereof of in our childhood combines to make up our personality.

If I am wrong, please enlighten me.

His Answer:

Yeah- you basically got it. Again, where does our personality come from?In summary:
A) NATURE: genetics/biology/DNA
B) NURTURE: environment/upbringing/culture
And of course, the interaction between the two.
That answer is satisfactory to me!

My answer:

You asked me “What would a college introductory psychology textbook say on this question- why do have the personality we have?”
and I gave you my best reply.

Now, where does an astrologer say personality comes from? Do we think personality “comes from” the stars?

No. It’s not causal.

Let’s go back to physics once again. OK, quantum mechanics. Richard Feynman theorized that the interaction of electrons and photons sends electrons forward and back again in time making it appear that they is in two places at the same time. This would an interesting theoretical model for the ancient Hermetic model “As above, so below” except for the fact that physicists confine the activities of subatomic world to just that one. But let’s just assume, (I think that its a fair assumption anyway) that as a species we barely understand how the Universe works. Perhaps the quantum model works in the macrocosmic world as well. Jung thought so, and coined the term “synchronicity” to explain what he observed correlations in meaning between otherwise seemingly unrelated events.

All of this is a roundabout way of explaining that the planets do not cause anything to happen. However, astrologers have thousands of years of observations under our collective belts. We’ve made correlations with what happens in the heavens to what happens in human lives.

Yes, you say, but what does that have to do with personality?

Gauguelin, the French statistician famous for one of his studies that produced “the Mar’s Effect”, also did studies on heredity and astrology. What he found was that while parents and offspring didn’t often share the same planets in zodiac signs (which you would naturally think that they would) they would have other planets in the same zodiac signs. A father might have his sun in Aries and his daughter would have Venus in Aries, that sort of thing. There just isn’t any earthly reason for this sort of thing to happen and yet it happens greater than statistical chance.

So there is heredity, reflected in the stars.

And that’s all astrology is, a mirror.

His Answer:

1) Richard Feynman, on religious creation stories, also said, “Those stories were good, but the truth is so much better.”

2) I think that we as a species do have a pretty good idea of how the universe works. In fact, I feel that I have decent sense of the 13.7 billion years of cosmic history.

3) “Mars Effect:” “To falsify the claim that the observed Mars Effect is an artifact induced by multiple-comparisons a single reference is sufficient. It must be a well-designed peer-reviewed study that would replicate the Mars Effect at a decent significance level involving a non-biased selection of eminent athletes (eminence being defined before the data is analyzed) and performed in a way that insures the complete independence of the athlete sample from the sample available at the time the Mars Effect was first described as eminent athletes being born more often under planet Mars in sectors 1 and 4″. “…available studies allegedly replicating the Mars Effect fail to match some or all of the mentioned requirements. For example Geoffrey Dean states that the Mars Effect is supported by the 303 sports-champions CSICOP test. But these 303 sports-champions were a subsample randomly chosen from Gauquelin’s sample. One may call this is an independent study, but it is not a study performed on an independent sample. Such studies cannot be used to exclude errors introduced by multiple-comparisons”. “While Geoffrey Dean claims that the Mars Effect can be replicated he mentions that Gauquelin failed to “observe a consistent Mars effect for sports champions born after 1950” – which seems to be an argument against the previous statement. However, this is in agreement with certain studies, such as the U.S. study performed by Paul Kurtz and colleagues that failed to replicate the Mars
Effect”.[2]Wikipedia

My answer:

1) Richard Feynman, on religious creation stories, also said, “Those stories were good, but the truth is so much better.”

But I wasn’t discussing religious creation stories but Feynman’s own theories so I fail to see the connection here with creation stories.

2) I think that we as a species do have a pretty good idea of how the universe works. In fact, I feel that I have decent sense of the 13.7 billion years of cosmic history.

History and science are two different disciplines. You are playing with words again, Shawn. However, if you mean to say that we have a pretty good sense of what the science of the Universe is, and you believe in the Universe as a cosmic machine, what Scientific Determinists believe, then it simply is not possible to deny the implications of Feynman’s work. If electrons bounce around in time to be in two places at once, then astrology as a practice is not only possible it is probable.

3) “Mars Effect:” “To falsify the claim that the observed Mars Effect is an artifact induced by multiple-comparisons a single reference is sufficient. It must be a well-designed peer-reviewed study that would replicate the Mars Effect at a decent significance level involving a non-biased selection of eminent athletes (eminence being defined before the data is analyzed) and performed in a way that insures the complete independence of the athlete sample from the sample available at the time the Mars Effect was first described as eminent athletes being born more often under planet Mars in sectors 1 and 4″. “…available studies allegedly replicating the Mars Effect fail to match some or all of the mentioned requirements. For example Geoffrey Dean states that the Mars Effect is supported by the 303 sports-champions CSICOP test. But these 303 sports-champions were a subsample randomly chosen from Gauquelin’s sample. One may call this is an independent study, but it is not a study performed on an independent sample. Such studies cannot be used to exclude errors introduced by multiple-comparisons”. “While Geoffrey Dean claims that the Mars Effect can be replicated he mentions that Gauquelin failed to “observe a consistent Mars effect for sports champions born after 1950” – which seems to be an argument against the previous statement. However, this is in agreement with certain studies, such as the U.S. study performed by Paul Kurtz and colleagues that failed to replicate the Mars Effect”.[2]Wikipedia

Good call, Shawn, citing Wikipedia and Geoffrey Dean. Don’t you tell your students not to use Wikipedia as a source? I know my children’s teachers did. I wrote a whole piece on the bias of Wikipedia. http://astrologyexplored.net/home/?p=2266

The fact is that the Geoffrey Dean was well involved in manipulating the subsets to produce the results he reports.

http://www.astrozero.co.uk/astroscience/ertel_elwell.htm

The data collected under the responsibility of the US sceptics (CSICOP) supported Gauquelin’s Mars effect as long as they were collecting data with much hope of success (their first batch of data). But when the first batch’s result came out in favour of Gauquelin, the US data collectors managed to select the rest of the data (two more batches) in such a way that the Mars-born percentage of athletes dropped from its top to an incredibly low bottom, i.e., the results of batches 2 and 3 were alarmingly low, inconsistent with all other data collections by sceptical researchers, only consistent with what CSICOP had wanted to achieve.

And in another article Professor Suitbert Ertel rebutted Dean’s claims:

http://www.planetos.info/sertel.html

However, in subsequent analyses Ertel combined Gauquelin’s published (N = 2,888) with his unpublished sample (N = 1,496), thus undoing all effects due to his bias-prone procedure. The total resulting sample is less eminent overall, but the worth of it is that it is free from bias. 11) Do birth frequencies of Gauquelin’s corrected total no longer deviate from chance expectation? See Figure 1. Birth frequencies across 12 Mars sectors for Gauquelin’s corrected sample of N = 4,384 are shown as a dashed line and by hollow circles. A sharp peak at sector 1 (rise) and a much less impressive peak at sector 4 (culmination), taken together, still confirm Gauquelin’s claim.

Furthermore Geoffrey Dean is hardly a credible source of scientific analysis. Geoffrey Dean is a geologist. At one time he was an astrologer. He claims to have performed a study that disproves astrology, Times Twins Test, which was never published, and therefore can’t be reviewed. Yet this test is frequently cited as proof that astrology does not work.

Dean’s critiques into astrology have claims that have not been proven or documented.
For instance Dr. Dean published a purported meta-analysis of 300 studies of astrology on his site www.astrology-and-science.com which claims that astrology has no validity, yet he does not cite any of the 300 studies supposedly reviewed to make this claim.

Dennis Elwell describes Dean as such: http://cura.free.fr/xv/12elwell.html
Geoffrey Dean enjoys playing little games with the gullible. Most readers will perhaps not be aware that down the years the astrology bashers have frequently resorted to outright deception, gleefully sending out bogus horoscopes, and so forth, whereby they have not been testing astrology per se, so much as the credibility threshold of astrologers and those who believe in them.

Shawn, no one is denying your right to believe what you want to believe. But a belief is not science; it’s not even rational. It is the evidence of things unseen, which is also known as faith.

And that was the last I heard from my skeptic pen pal.

Photo published under a Creative Commons license from Flickr user marcinchady


Add to Technorati Favorites

About Beth Turnage

I write about astrology alot. Some people like to read it.
This entry was posted in Skeptics, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.
Beth Turnage says:

Julie,

Thanks!