In defense of Astrology? Have I finally lost the plot?
Maybe! I like to doubt my own doubts from time to time, and critique my own sceptical beliefs. I originally wrote this as a playful piece on Richard Dawkin’s forum when The Enemies of Reason TV show was announced.
All my life I have been rather amused by the persistence of belief in Astrology, and have outspokenly declared against it as superstitious claptrap — in this I was very much influenced by one of my heroes, the American Rationalist and SF/Horror writer HP Lovecraft who carried out a letter writing campaign to get it removed from newspapers, and the latter day efforts of James Randi and other decent minded Sceptics.
However, I think it’s time to say a few words in defense of the old gal, so here goes…
From the earliest times, humanity looked to the stars with awe, and very quickly they made a rather important observation, and one upon which I suspect pretty much all of our civilization is founded: the heavens predict the seasons, and by observing the skies, one knows when to plant, when to reap, and so forth. The whole calendar, and our sense of linear time, but above all the development of agriculture which enabled urbanization and eventually through surplus, the rise of technology and learning, is based on predictive study of the heavens. Astrology was a science back then, a science which enabled the Egyptians to predict the flooding of the Nile for example. In China, the Middle East, and probably India a great body of astronomical lore and observations were amassed, for entirely pragmatic reasons.
From the earliest times, I guess people also marked important anniversaries – birthdays perhaps, or the solstices. They saw themselves age, and life events pass, and measured themselves against the passage of time, the seasons, and the stars. From these observations the astrologers with their maths developed a body of knowledge which they saw as predictive, which explained the fates of people, and came to believe in it.
Of course there were a great many sceptics in the Ancient World – Rome was full of astrological sceptics, and today we would separate the Astrological nonsense from the Astronomical truth – but in the early days of Science there was no such luxury. By the fist century BCE astrologers were pointing out, does the moon not influence the tides? How much more likely the subtleties of the human blood and spirit were bound by these same natural forces!
In fact they were almost right. We know now that cosmic rays appear to seed clouds, or so I am told, and we understand that the same rays can cause mutations in our very DNA, or again so I believe is the case? The sun clearly is vital to sustaining our little system, and the moon really does cause the tides. Indeed they were completely right to see a causal relationship between the sun and moon and the seasons, which our science has long since explained. The planets really do effect life on earth, and maybe the remains of dead stars actually brought us some of the ingredients for this life? I don’t know.
So maybe old Aunty Astrology, long since discredited by the Christian Church Fathers, vilified by sceptics, and abandoned by her wayward son Astronomy in her dotage, was not all bad. Without her we would probably still be hunter gatherers, and how much of our science in a millenia will look equally as dumb to an observer then looking back? “They believed what in the 21st century? How quaint!”
Then there is the fact that in some senses Astrology works. At a simple level, many people do seem to actually resemble their sun sign, and i think I know why — because as children we are exposed to this garbage, and therefore our personal identities shape themselves to some degree based on what we are told we “should be like”. I’m a Leo/Virgo cusp – I was told when young I was Leo, so I grew up proud, arrogant, overbearing and intensely egotistical, a thoroughly unpleasant tosser, but hey that’s me. And I’m guessing that happens a lot.
I started working on this theory years ago, after I noticed that Freudian ideas, which I considered superstitious tosh, actually were far more effective in a clinical environment than they had any right to be, and there were some brilliant Freudian practitioners. I thought through all the possibilities – was Freud right after all? Was it all just chance and misperception on my part? and then one day a possible explanation hit me – most of our patients had grown up in a society where Freud’s ideas were at least slightly known, and held authority – and that belief empowered them to get better, because they were comfortable with the ideas? I could be wrong – but I think it might work.
Astrology might gain just empower some people to make decisions, because they feel its “in their stars”, whereas in fact they are just selectively choosing which bits to believe, and which to ignore. So I actually think childhood to the ideas exposure might help shape the child’s personality and self perception in a self fulfilling prophecy – precisely Augustine’s argument as I recall, except I think he felt demons gained power to shape you once you chose? Maybe it was some other Church Father, I’m nowhere near my books!
Yet Astrology was, and still is in many parts of the world correct here – the time of your birth in any seasonal agricultural economy might be extremely important in your chance of surviving infancy I’m guessing. simply because certain illnesses and the mothers food supply hence available nutrients are going to vary tremendously with the passing of the seasons. Of course this will depend where you are on the planet, as the seasons of say Northern Finland are very different to those of Italy or Brazil, but it will be significant. The place and date of your birth may well in pre-industrial societies actually have a marked effect on your development? I don’t know, but us “Enemies of Reason” like to consider these possibilities. The ancients were maybe not so daft after all…
So Aunty Astrology has been shown to be a gossipy old hag, but she was not without her uses. And then of course, we have the final and funniest thing of all.
A few decades ago, a French husband and wife pair discovered what they called the Mars Effect – that is that Mars was ascendant at the time that sports champions (as I recall, this is off the top of my head) was ascendant, rising over the horizon at the moment of birth. Now a moments thought will show this is nonsense – why birth – why not conception? The problem is their figures worked, and the rationalist organization CSICOP famously investigated this, and then a number of members including Truzzi quit in disgiust claiming that CSICOP had suppressed the positive replication. It was a scandal which actually besmirched the cause of Sceptisicm for years, an irrational refusal many felt to follow the facts when the conclusions were uncomfortable. In fact in the decades since there have been many positive replications, and a good number of papers which show why the original claims may well have been as flawed as was purported – but the matter is still not really in 2009 conclusively dealt with as far as I know. You can read up on this here —
Perhaps someone with time, and a good knowledge of stats and mathematical analysis cares to play?
Now let’s get this straight – I ain’t following no horoscope, or claiming Astrology as popularly understood is in any sense useful. However before one can dismiss it finally as pseudoscience, there is still a little work to be done – and if it was not for our dear mad aunty, we might still be out hunting now, and grubbing for roots, not playing on the net.
I’m not going to be too harsh on Astrology again. 🙂
Yes I’m pretty sure it was St Augustine of Hippo , though I believe several Church Fathers denounced astrology as well. That didn’t stop medieval Popes believing in it though!
I’ve always had two basic objections to astrology 1. I’m a Saggitarius and I recognise very little of the supposed characteristics of Saggitatarians in myself; 2. The fact that astrological systems have to assume that our planet is in a ‘special’ location in the Universe, which we know is not true – the star groupings that make up the Western astrological signs would look completely different to someone living on a planet the other side of the Milky Way, or even from the nearest star Proxima Centauri.
But… some theistic scientists have suggested that maybe our position in the Universe IS actually important and maybe vital for our very existence, so maybe this argument no longer applies…
I tend to swing between complete scepticism to a grudging ”Well, maybe there is something in it…”
I have to confess that although I’ve studied astronomy, I haven’t looked into astrology as deeply as I ought to, so maybe I should take a fresh look at the subject.
I have studied astrology but I guess it just wasn’t for me. I had much more success with numerology and it seems to suit me better as well. I respect astrology though because I do know some people who get great results with it and its been around as a divination tool for such a long time. I might try it again some day but I actually found it boring. I used to make birth charts for people to practice and it got old fast to me. I see why its a good system to use so I won’t write it off completely. I really hate reading horoscopes. They are never right.
Yeah, I don’t have any faith in astrology either. Fun to read about, and very important in our history though!
The place and date of your birth may well in pre-industrial societies actually have a marked effect on your development?
And in post-industrial ones too, plausibly. Mental and emotional development in infancy is pretty tightly scheduled: it doesn’t seem unreasonable to speculate that crucial developmental phase X happening in midwinter might be different from it happenin in midsummer.
Plus of course there’s what might be called the “Premiership effect” whereby successful footballers preponderantly have birthdays in September and October. Not through any mystical influence, but because they were likely to be the biggest and strongest in their school year and so channelled towards sporting success.
Ah, I’d not heard of the Premiership Effect, but it makes perfect sense, though I would have though Rugby players would show an even more marked effect, as size and strength crucial there. Well, given that the birthdates of the Six Nations teams should be easily located,I think we can test this for statistical significance? I’ll see what I can dig up later. This is exactly the kind of thing that I mean – perfectly ordinary seasonal variation, nowt to do with chakras and your neptune in trine, which just sounds painful… 🙂
Malcolm Gladwell’s recent book has a fairly detailed analysis relating to Canadian ice hockey pro players — although they mostly have birthdays in Jan and Feb, because their childhood year group selection is done by calendar rather than school year.
OK I know nothing worthwhile about rugby, or who was educated in UK, but I find the following(the cut off for a School year in most LEA is around September 1st)
Luke Narraway 7th Sep
Tom Rees 11th Sep
Steffon Armitage 20th Sep
Steve Borthwick 12th Oct
Mike Tindall 18th Oct
Andrew Sheridan 1st Nov
Danny Cipriani 2nd Nov
Olly Morgan 3rd Nov
Tom Croft 7th Nov
Paul Sackey 8th Nov
Ben Kay 14th Dec
Delon Armitage 15th Dec
Mark Cueto 26th Dec
Matt Banahan 30th Dec
Simon Shaw 1st Jan
Danny Care 2nd Jan
Michael Lipman 16th Jan
Matthew Tait 6th Feb
Riki Flutey 10th Feb
Lee Mears 5th Mar
Phil Vickery 14th March
Dylan Hartley 24th Mar
Tom Palmer 27th Mar
James Haskell 2nd Apr
Andy Goode 3rd Apr
Ugo Monye 13th Apr
Paul Hodgson 25th Apr
Tim Payne 29th Apr
Jamie Noon 9th May
Julian White 14th May
Harry Ellis 17th May
Lewis Moody 12th Jun
Joe Worsley 14th Jun
George Chuter 9th Jul
Ben Foden 22nd Jul
Toby Flood 8th Aug
Shane Geraghty 12th Aug
Nick Easter 15th Aug
Nick Kennedy 19th Aug
There is the raw data for the England 2009 Six Nations squad. To be honest at a casual glance it does not appear at this level position in school year is significant at all. I’ll play with the data later, but I’m going to guess the Premiership Effect does not apply here?
Mm, maybe things are done differently at the private schools I guess many of them went to.
Never thought of that! I went to a comprehensive so an oik like me would not know, but I had a quick look at term dates for a few Headmasters Conference schools and they all start in September as normal.
It makes perfect sense, so I’m curious why it does not seem to work here in practice! I have thought of one flaw – the distribution of childbirth throughout the year is not even – many more children seem to be born in January -March than late summer. So we would need to adjust for that?
I’ll see if I can find the stats!
I meant, maybe at those schools kids are allocated to rugby teams differently, rather than on a straightforward academic-year-based system. Or maybe one starts learning rugby at clubs rather than at school?
Mm, you’d have to be comparing against the expected distribution on seasonal birth pattern. But it’s a pretty small sample — I’d be surprised if you can coax a significant result out of it 😉
About 50. Maybe if we add Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland where as far as I can see the school years is similar, we then have a population of 200 – not a lot, but we might spot a broad trend? Dunno, it’s interesting though. I have SPSS so I can probably have a go if I can find the frequency distribution for childbirth by month, preferably around 1981.
Still, I think the theory should work – I’m surprised it has not actually. 🙂
I researched the evidence and blogged about it a while back.
I noticed some articles which discuss birthdates and success.
“Consistent with the rest of the population, more American billionaires and near-billionaires were born in the fall than in any other season. However, relatively few of them were born in December, historically the month with the eighth-highest birth rate.”
Of course, correlation doesn’t mean causation. But it is interesting.
In light of the Telegraph article ( http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/children_shealth/8741380/Month-a-baby-is-born-suggests-what-career-they-will-have.html ) that you brought to our attention elsewhere, I thought I’d leave a comment so this piece is easier to find.
I’ve long held that the time of year you are born has an effect, however minor, in later life, even if it’s just something as trivial as a preference for a season. Climate change, or migration to a different latitude, must play havoc with astrological charts!