Debunking Astrology – The Planets Just Aren’t That Into You
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What is Astrology and how does it (supposedly) work?
If you haven’t been living under a rock your whole life, you are probably aware of the daily horoscope section in your local daily. Here you’ll find list of daily predictions for the twelve zodiac-signs (or sun-signs; there is a subtle difference but the two are often used interchangeably). These predictions claim to broadly predict what your day would look like, and may also contain some suggestions on activities you should embrace and/or avoid. So far, I have lived on three different continents and as far as I can remember, this section has been the daily staple of pretty much every single newspaper. Some people do not leave for work without preparing themselves for the day according to their horoscope, while others just read it for fun and are marveled at its accuracy. The problem though is that it is completely bogus.
Astrology has no rational basis and is not backed by any kind of evidence or testable theory. It is the prime example of pseudoscience, which has successfully seeped into popular culture. Don’t believe me? Ask someone their zodiac-sign and, without dwelling too much into statistics, they will most likely know the answer. Ask them what it means to belong to that sign and either they will have absolutely no idea or they will tell you something about their ruling planet (which doesn’t really mean anything either but makes people feel smart) . But I think I am being too harsh on the horoscope and zodiac-signs because they are largely harmless, and astrology is about much more than just that.
I will spare you boring details about the origins and history of Astrology, because you can find those details elsewhere. Briefly, the sky is divided into twelve regions and each region is represented by the zodiac names. Essentially, astrology is rooted in the principle that celestial bodies, such as planets and the moon, can exercise influence in various spheres of human activities. The question is how? According to astrological explanation, the sky is divided into twelve regions, each region represented by a zodiac and the position of the sun (and sometimes other celestial bodies; astrology has many flavors) in of these regions, depending on the time and place of an individual’s birth decides his or her sign, which in turn is a predictor of the various personal and professional aspects of the individual’s life. It is actually not the craziest idea in the World (maybe that’s why people still tend to believe it? Not sure). The reason I say this may not be an outright crazy idea, is because one of the arguments made in the fundamental text of Astrology, Tetrabiblos (English version may be downloaded here) by Ptolmey is that, since the planetary bodies can affect physical changes on Earth and the life it harbors (tides, temperature, seasons etc.), therefore the method of prediction is valid. Historically speaking, to someone in 2nd century AD this is a fairly good explanation, given that astronomy was just starting to develop as a field of research and astrology and astronomy were quite interchangeable (and many people continue to do so). This is where the pseudoscience aspect comes in. Let’s dissect it further.
What does Science say?
A theory may be called scientific if it is verifiable and falsifiable. Astrology is neither. One may be tempted to blame its mystical origins to categorize it as a pseudoscience, but the origin is irrelevant. The fact is that astrological predictions are not testable. They are usually general enough to fit a variety of expectations. Paul Thagard wrote an excellent piece in 1978, thoroughly describing why astrology is a pseudoscience. Further, in one of the more frequently cited study conducted in 1985, Shawn Carlson convincingly showed that the astrological evidence did not pass double-blind test – the hallmark of scientific method – and therefore is not scientifically valid.
Noted astronomer, Andrew Fraknoi published an article (pdf) in 2010 in which he posed 10 embarrassing questions, or in other (more polite) words, 10 obvious holes in the theory of astrology. My personal favorite – why is the time and place of birth more important than the time and place of conception? Despite repeated attempts, I could not find a peer-reviewed journal which publishes astrological research (I do think that we use terms such as ‘research’ or ‘expertise’ rather liberally, but for the purpose of this article let us continue as such). After scouring through some astrology blogs and forums, I got the sense that the journal Correlation, published by The Astrological Association (AA) is supposedly a respectable source of astrology research and is touted as a peer-reviewed journal. Nowhere on the website of Correlation, does it say that it is a peer-reviewed journal. Google seems to agree.
Furthermore, the website itself does not appear to have been maintained professionally. Sections labeled Research, Book Reviews, Database Reviews (what Database? No idea) are simply empty and contain no information, and there is no ‘under maintenance’ notice either. Similarly another journal by AA, called Culture and Cosmos lists an issue from 2013 as its current issue. So, either there is not enough work done by the researchers in this field or the publishers’ marketing skills are sub-par. I tend to side with the former. Astrology cannot be tested and astrologers do not want it tested. Therefore the question of peer-review is moot. Ultimately, most of the astrological research is published on various blogs or astrology websites. International Astrologer is one journal which is rather professionally maintained. However, it took me a while to find its contents because there appears to be no direct link on the website. A search for the citation record of this journal on Google Scholar, where even the most obscure journals are often indexed, brought up only one article about how the (aforementioned) Shawn Carlson double-blind experiment actually supports astrology. This article has been cited twice – one is author’s self-citation, while the other is a dissertation from an institute being sued for misrepresentation. So it appears that the academic community in general does not care much about this research.
Is it really that bad?
I’m often accused of being a fuddy-duddy because horoscopes are harmless and people read them for fun, and I tend to spoil the fun by ranting against astrology! While I agree that horoscopes are harmless, astrology is not limited to horoscopes. Astrologers often prey on innocent people who are in a vulnerable state of mind due to personal or professional reasons. Clearly, not all astrologers are bad people, but when you are selling an invisible product you can change it as you wish to make the maximum profit. Financial scams by astrologers are nothing new. Recently, a country-wide alert in Canada was issued, warning people of fraudulent astrologers. In another recent story which made national news, a man paid $700K+ to a Manhattan based psychic, who promised to reunite him with his ex-girlfriend even after discovering that she was dead.
I grew up in India, where many people live by the local flavor of astrology. There are people who do not travel without consulting their astrologer. Then there are those who do not buy a car or get married or plan a family unless the moment is ‘auspicious’. A lot of people do all of the above. Be it unpleasant life events or a medical epidemic, it is very common in India to ‘blame it on the planets’. Astrologers are more common in India than most people might think, and pretty much each one of them claims to be world famous (I have my doubts though), and yet not one of them has ever been able to predict a natural disaster or terrorist attack. As Jayant Narlikar has noted, compared to the West, astrology faces very little resistance and criticism in India primarily because in some sense, it is almost a way of life. High rates of poverty and illiteracy contribute to the lack of critical thinking. People often pay exorbitant sums of money to astrologers, even when they cannot afford it, to conduct rituals which will fix the problem caused by funky alignment of planets. Why the alignment of asteroids or the objects in Kuiper belt doesn’t affect people, I’ll never know.
Swindling and fraud aside, astrology has also crept into health and medicine. There is actually something known as medical astrology. It is a bit hard to gauge success of the field and obtain data on the benefits of medical astrology because no mainstream peer-reviewed journal publishes on the topic. Needless to say, this can be potentially very dangerous because people who are sick should seek medical attention and not waste their time and money on unqualified frauds. In India, for example, it is almost impossible to be out and not see advertisements from local astrologers promising to cure pretty much any and every ailment you may have, with a weirdly special focus on sexual problems. Advertisements such as this are very common in India.
In the West, medical astrology is presented in a more sophisticated manner but is equally ineffective. Pat Harris is a fertility astrologer and the editor of the aforementioned poorly managed Correlation journal, and apparently only member of the editorial board. She claims her research has shown that astrology can help women manage psychological stress and pain during fertility treatment. Infertility does take significant psychological toll on couples, especially women. It is a real problem which deserves real solutions and legitimate research is being done to address it. In spite of Ms. Harris’s claims, astrology is not a part of that research. A 2008 article she published in srm-ejournal (the website of this journal srm-ejournal.com does not load), clearly states:
It is important to note that only 1 study has been done to correlate astrology with fertility, so it is not possible yet to confirm a true level of significance.
It is likely that when such pseudoscientific studies are put in the public domain, there has to be some hidden disclaimer which makes sure that the author(s) won’t be held liable. Perhaps which is why, following key fact has been highlighted:
It is important that the patient understands that astrological indicators do not guarantee success.
In another 2009 article published by Ms. Harris in The Mountain Astrologer, a leading astrology magazine (which does not claim to be peer-reviewed), Ms. Harris details on how astrological counseling can be an antidote to depression. In this article, she cites herself (3 times), Ptolmey (once) and William Lilly (twice, using two separate entries). The actual peer-reviewed articles which have been cited have nothing to do with astrology. She also cites some text which would normally mentioned as a footnote in academic papers. Overall, this article reeks of bad science which should not be taken as medical advice. Sophistication does not make arguments scientific, but it does confuse the average reader.
So why do people continue to take it seriously?
Here’s an exercise – read your daily horoscope and try to relate whatever happens to you during the day to the horoscope and see how much of it can you actually relate. If you’re able to relate at least some of your day’s events to your horoscope, you won’t be the only one. The reason is that these horoscopes and predictions are fairly general and can apply to anyone on any given day, but at the same time sound specific enough to get people interested and make them believe in these predictions. This is known as the Barnum effect and it has been used to explain why people believe in horoscopes and other personality interpretations. So since we do know what makes us believe in such useless pseudoscience, why don’t we just snap out of it? Well, as it turns out, there are reasons.
One would expect that with such staggering advances in science and technology over the last century (we have detected gravitational waves, for crying out loud), people would simply get rid of pseudoscientific notions. But unfortunately just the opposite appears to be happening and these notions are increasingly being accepted in the mainstream. Astrology is like any other business based on pseudoscience, which is often marketed as science and the aim is to make money. The only way to make money off of an invisible product is to lie (much like religion, but we shall talk about that another time). A study conducted by National Science Foundation (NSF) found that more Americans considered astrology to be scientific in 2012 than they did in 2005. The more worrying part of this trend is that the young people (18-24) are more likely to consider astrology as science.
Social celebrities exert a great deal of influence in the popular culture, and are generally well compensated for it. Therefore, while it is not required, celebrities must be extra cautious when endorsing and promoting viewpoints – especially on issues related to science or health – which lie outside their field of expertise. When ill-researched, more often than not, such endorsements expose their lack of critical thinking. But a lot of them are doing it anyway. Many celebrities believe in astrology and some like Katy Perry openly endorse it. Celebrity astrologers are no less fake then the regular astrologers, they simply market themselves in elite social circles (if you call them out on their bluff, they tend to sue). When celebrities endorse something, it often becomes more accepted and critical thinking goes out of the window.
Media is often criticized for promoting bad science as well. This critique is not unfounded, and with the advent of social media this issue has become more acute. Any astrologer can simply create a Facebook page or start a blog and then based on his/her marketing skills can start attracting clientele (first reading is usually free). Governments in some countries often voluntarily allocate funds to promotion and teaching of astrology in the name of tradition, culture and spiritual science. Spirituality, I think, is often a cop-out for those can either not promote religion openly or are too afraid to be labeled atheists. In 2001, the Indian government decided to fund the graduate and undergraduate course on Astrology, and received a scathing response from a number of eminent scientists who were not happy with the decision (also covered by Nature; see here). Some British politicians have proposed (see here and here) funding medical astrology as part of improving health infrastructure in Britain. Overall, this helps to promote the notion that astrology is a discipline that must be taken seriously.
The evidence collected over decades has convincingly proven that astrology has no physical basis and the relative position(s) of the celestial bodies has no impact on events that occur on the Earth. There has been no peer-reviewed research performed in the field of astrology and there has been no progress in understanding the basic concepts upon which the field is supposedly based. Astrologers often disagree with each other and there are several flavors of astrology (none is better than the other).
Astrological predictions are very general and therefore cannot be tested or trusted. It sounds just scientific enough. Among the more recent examples, no astrologer predicted the unfortunate Paris terrorist attacks in November 2015, and I’m definitely not writing this from an underground bunker because the apocalypse has finally struck due to the supermoon. Like any other pseudoscientific discipline, astrology offers scared and vulnerable people an easy way out and something they can believe in. It is not altruistic because astrologers often charge heavy fees (can’t they just make money by predicting lottery numbers?). They provide people with easy answers, but sometimes there are no easy answers because life is complex and that’s OK!
Getting back to our newspaper horoscopes, I have noticed an interesting irony. Sudoku/crossword puzzles are often placed next to the horoscopes. The former expects you to use your brain, while the latter assumes that you will turn it off.
Be sure to follow Rohit on Twitter at @RealRohitArora!